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“Well-behaved women seldom make history”: Hills, Poetry and Protest

Jaimini Patel visits the life of a key figure in the American battle for civil rights.

At Joe Biden’s inauguration I, along with the rest of the world, watched Amanda Gorman reignite a marriage of unparalleled power: poetry and politics. Described by commentators as being the tenth Greek muse, this time not of history or poetry but of democracy, one line of Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb particularly resonated with me:

‘being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we stepped into and how we repair it.’

Gorman’s poem promises salvation through struggle, and it is this willingness to step into the darker aspects of America’s historical struggle that makes this poem whole. You’ve probably learnt about some of the injustices Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fought against in this struggle. You’ve also probably read To Kill A Mockingbird, which addresses the injustice of false-rape accusations against black men. 

Cue, now, Ida B. Wells, a significantly less known figure, yet one who was instrumental in exposing and campaigning against violence against black people. Above all, Wells was a potent orator and writer whose fearless, raw, poetic speeches paved the way for women like Gorman to address the nation. 

Born into slavery during the civil war (1862), Wells had many-a-hill to climb during her life, but her primary struggle was against the institutionalised lynching and mob violence against innocent black people, primarily men, during her life. 

The first incident where Wells’ commitment to equality was demonstrated was when, aged 21, she was ordered by a conductor to move from her first-class carriage to a ‘coloured only’ one, despite having bought a first-class ticket. Wells refused, biting into the conductor’s hand when she was forcibly dragged out and eventually launching a legal battle against the train company, Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. Despite winning the court case, the verdict was overturned by a higher level court. 

Undeterred, Wells’ turned her eye to a new method of protest: journalism. In 1889 she became editor and co-owner of The Free Speech and Headlight, a black-owned newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee. Enraged by the People’s Grocery Lynchings, the first mob killings since the Civil War, in which three successful black businessmen were murdered, Wells began to investigate the shameful prevalence of unjust lynchings. 

Wells denounced the People’s Grocery Lynchings, then embarked on a journey across the south to investigate hundreds of mob-killings committed against innocent black people. What is so extraordinary about this is that Wells conducted all this research in a time when women did not even have the vote, and a black woman would certainly not have had the protection of law enforcement in towns where law enforcement would have been involved in the killings. Armed with only her pen and her pistol, Wells walked straight into a battleground where black people had been quite literally mutilated for no good reason. 

One of Wells’ most famous phrases is that ‘the way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them’, and this still rings true for investigative journalism today. Years before To Kill A Mockingbird was published, Wells had proof that rape was not alleged against black men in two thirds of the cases which she looked into, and even then it was only alleged after a consensual relationship. 

The irony of Wells’ situation is that, whilst her reporting aimed to hold violent perpetrators to account, the offices of her newspaper in Memphis were burned down by violent opponents of her reporting. Wells continued her work from New York and actually travelled to England, Scotland and Wales to try and gain a sympathetic audience to speak to her pamphlets, and she succeeded as the Londonn Anti-Lynching Committee was established: the first of its kind. 

In 1895 Wells married civil rights lawyer and activist Ferdinand L. Barnett, and became more involved in the national civil rights campaign from her new home of Chicago. Wells was an egalitarian in more than one aspect, however, showing her proto-feminist streak by adopting a double barrel surname rather than just taking her husband’s name. 

Wells’ involvement in the national civil rights movement can perhaps best be epitomised by an excerpt from one of her speeches to the 1909 National Negro Conference:

‘During the last 10 years, from 1899 to 1908 inclusive, the number lynched was 959. Of this number 102 were white, while the colored victims numbered 857. No other nation, civilized or savage, burns its criminals; only under that Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible. Twenty-eight human beings burned at the stake, one of them a woman and two of them children, is the awful indictment against American civilization – the gruesome tribute which the nation pays to the color line.’

It’s here that we see how the true power of Wells’ activism is a forerunner of Gorman’s, as she combines statistics from her own fearless research with poetry of the vanquished. The haunting synecdoche of the ‘Stars and Stripes’ which Wells links to a ‘human holocaust’ cuts right to the heart of the American identity at a time when such rhetoric could have cost Wells her life. 

Wells was a trailblazer in many ways, and perhaps one of her most relevant battles was that of intersectionality. As well as raising awareness of racial injustice, Wells was greatly involved in the women’s suffrage movement. The white female suffragists did not always see eye to eye with Wells, however, and at one suffrage parade organised for Washington, D.C. the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson Wells, she was informed that she, alongside other black women, would walk at the end of the parade in a coloured delegation. Undaunted, Wells stepped into the middle of the march to link hands with her white colleagues: yet another symbol of her progressiveness, even within current civil rights movements. 

Ida B. Wells is not a textbook figure associated with civil rights, yet now more than ever she seems to be relevant to our world. Her strategies of investigative journalism and speech-making even when faced with violence remain admirable, but most of all it is her courage as a black woman without the protection of the society she was in that deserves to be celebrated.

Artwork by Emma Hewlett

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