Portrait of pioneering African-American activist Ida B. Wells circa 1890s

Pioneering African-American activist, journalist and suffragist, circa 1890s

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We Who Believe In Freedom: Ida Wells' Crusade To Arouse the Conscience of America

Amidst our enduring and revivified racism - today's GOP: "A white nationalist (is) an American" - we celebrate the birthday of anti-lynching agitator, muckraking journalist, fierce suffragist and orator Ida B. Wells, who for decades used the media to fight against lynching, "that last relic of barbarism and slavery," as "color-line murder" based on "the old threadbare lie that Negro men assault white women." "Only under the Stars and Stripes," she charged, "is this human holocaust possible."

Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862, Wells was not yet three when the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished. The oldest of eight children, she was 16 when her parents and baby brother died of yellow fever, and she suddenly found herself the head of a family of six remaining children. She became a schoolteacher in Memphis during Reconstruction, but at age 24 was fired after criticizing conditions in the schools. Turning to journalism, she became the co-owner and editor of two papers, Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, the country's first woman and black person to do so. She quickly became a prominent activist for civil rights, women's suffrage and the end of lynching - a cause, she later noted, "which the Memphis whites considered sufficiently infamous to justify the destruction of my paper." After an angry mob trashed her printing press, she kept at it, arguing, "The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press." Later in life, she became editor of the Chicago Conservator, married Chicago attorney Ferdinand Barrett - she insisted on keeping her maiden name - and in 1909 helped found the NAACP.

Above all, over 40 years she became the country's most powerful voice in the battle against "our country's national crime," the "mob murder by color" that was lynching. Her goal: "To arouse the conscience of America" and "demand that justice be done though the heavens fall." En route she also sought to expose the lie that "Negroes are lynched to protect womanhood" - a base excuse, she long charged, "to wreak vengeance and cover crime." "It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob," she said in a 1900 speech of "the awful death-roll that Judge Lynch is calling every week." "It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent (sic) people who openly avow there is an 'unwritten law' that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense." Citing a decades-long "spirit of mob procedure" in "a vindictive, unchangeable South," she claimed as her own thankless task helping end "the inhuman butchery." "Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning," she said, "and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so."

Added to the horror of summary executions of innocent black people was the grim spectacle made of them. "Not only are two hundred men and women put to death annually in this country by mobs, but these lives are taken with the greatest publicity," she told the 1909 National Negro Conference. She described the ensuing atrocities: Victims often burned and dismembered, their ears, fingers, private parts sold as souvenirs to picnicking crowds, or photos of the corpses turned into postcards for the luckless unable to attend the festivities. Ever the journalist, accompanying the savagery were always the facts to "give the world a true, unvarnished account." Her booklet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases documented 728 lynching cases between 1884 and 1892; her study, "The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States,” documented 959 lynchings from 1899 to 1908. She also listed the "causes" for death by hanging: unknown, 92; race prejudice, 49; miscegenation, 7; informing, 12; making threats, 11; keeping saloon, 3; political causes, 5; protecting a Negro, 1; writing letter to white woman, 1; self-defense, 6; jilting girl, 1; insulting language to woman, 5; quarreling with white man, 2...

Frederick Douglass offered heartfelt thanks. "You have dealt with the facts with cool, painstaking fidelity, and left those naked and uncontradicted facts to speak for themselves," he wrote. "Brave woman!" You have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. If American conscience were only half alive.... a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read." Alas, he added, "It sometimes seems we are deserted by earth and Heaven, yet we must still think, speak and work..." Mob lynchings did slowly decline after the 1930s. But the racism at their core has clearly lingered, and the noose has remained a potent, vicious symbol of vigilante vengeance, of "murder by community," of the perceived need to keep black people in fear and in their place - especially in a newly, boldly white-supremacist America where racist idiot and "Republi-Klan" Sen. Tommy Tuberville feels free to declaim of white nationalists, "I call them Americans" and - still - a 37-year-old Black man in New Rochelle, NY was shot and killed by police for eating a few grapes and a banana in a grocery store and leaving without paying for them, except with his life..

Nooses, meanwhile, keep cropping up - at schools, garages, construction sites, the Capitol on Jan 6. A black professor at Columbia found a noose hanging on her office door; a noose was found outside D.C.'s Museum of African-American History and Culture, on the UC Santa Cruz campus, at the site of the Obama Presidential Center, at a Maryland lynching memorial. When white teens in Louisiana hung nooses from a tree, the school superintendent dismissed it as a "prank"; when photos of six slain Black people were hung by nooses in a park, the Times wondered if it was racism or "just rope in the hands of fools." WTF, NYT. And last week, after a BLM mural was vandalized, a noose was hung in downtown Santa Cruz; a black woman posted an image of it, prompting a guy to go cut it down, but she remained shaken: "It represents, ‘We don’t want you here, we can kill you at any time.'..It’s threatening, (and) I shouldn’t feel threatened here." So Ida Wells' work goes on. In her honor, Daily Kos offered music. Nina Simone's Revolution:"The only way we can stand in fact/ Is when you get your foot off my back." Sweet Honey in the Rock channeled Ella Baker: "We who believe in freedom cannot rest." And Strange Fruit still haunts, as it should.

Billie Holiday: Strange Fruit (Live 1959)youtu.be

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