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Against All Odds

A new play and photo exhibition call attention to Ida B. Wells and her brave fight to end lynching in America

One September day in 1883, Ida B. Wells stepped aboard a train in Memphis. She was 21 and a public school teacher. After she took a seat and opened a book to read, a conductor demanded that she move to a car designated for black passengers. She refused.

When the conductor grabbed her arm, Wells bit his hand. Hard. “I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back,” she would later recall. “As he had already been badly bitten, he didn’t try it again by himself.” Though she was no more than about five feet tall, it took three men to roust her from the seat. Still, she refused to sit in the other car and got off the train at the next stop.

Wells sued the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railroad in 1884 for violating equal accommodation statutes—and, incredibly, won. But the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the verdict in a ruling that would lay the groundwork for the “separate but equal” doctrine that kept racial segregation in place for decades.

Her ordeal, with its intriguing parallels to Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience aboard a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 72 years later, not only reveals Wells’ fierce will but also essentially launched her lifelong, often dangerous struggle to secure the rights of African-Americans. This fearless woman would do more than anyone to curtail the terrorizing of blacks by lynch mobs. She would also publish a newspaper, help found a number of African-American self-help organizations—including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—advance women’s rights and run for the Illinois Senate. Although she pioneered tactics that would become crucial to the civil rights movement decades later, she is not nearly as well known as contemporaries Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. But that is changing.

A traveling exhibition of photographs of lynching victims—profoundly disturbing images that have torn at old wounds and stirred controversy—has called attention to the wave of atrocities that Wells risked her life to stop. Joseph Jordan, curator of the exhibition Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, on view in Atlanta through December, says Wells “stands apart as the most recognizable and effective antilynching crusader in history.”

A new play that sketches and celebrates Wells’ life, Constant Star, has been staged in several cities, including Washington, D.C., Hartford and, last month, Pittsburgh. (It goes to Palm Beach, Florida, next March.) Playwright Tazewell Thompson says he was moved to investigate the “insane lawlessness” of lynchings and to write about Wells’ crusade against them after viewing a 1989 documentary, Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice. “It haunted me that this tiny woman had to become the drum majorette for this campaign,” says Thompson, a theater dis rector. “Wells believed it was a land of laws, and by God she was going to see to it that everyone was treated as if ‘all men are created equal.’”

And a Wells biography scheduled for publication next year is expected to shine more light on Wells’ uncompromising vision, which rankled some civil rights figures and partly accounts for why, until recently, she has not received the recognition her achievements warrant. “She did not hold her tongue at all. And she didn’t like to follow,” says the book’s author, Paula J. Giddings, a professor of Afro-American Studies at SmithCollege in Massachusetts. No less important, Wells has received only limited attention in academia, where the reputations of most historical figures are formed. “Black women tend to be marginalized both in Afro-American studies and in women’s studies,” Giddings adds.

After slavery ended in the united states in 1865, Southern states enacted several Jim Crow laws denying equality to African-Americans. White supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black citizens. Racist ideology dressed up as “science” depicted blacks as lascivious and inferior. It was in this charged atmosphere that some of the most heinous crimes ever committed in this country were sanctioned by the white community at large, and even by law officials themselves.

Lynching—the kidnapping, torturing and killing of men, women and children by vigilante mobs—became commonplace. Between 1880 and 1930, approximately 3,220 black Americans were reported lynched, along with perhaps 723 whites. The 1880s ushered in a dramatic and prolonged rise in the percentage of African-American victims. These lawless executions, blind to any constitutional guarantee of due process, often attracted large crowds. Some spectators brought along children and even picnic baskets, as though the horrific murder of another human being constituted entertainment, or worse, edification. It was the brutal lynching of a friend in 1892 that rallied Wells, then 29, to the antilynching cause.

By then, Wells had become a full-time journalist. When a series of articles she had written about her court case against the railroad was picked up by African-American newspapers across the country (and eventually led to a column), Wells knew what she wanted to do with her life. She bought part-ownership in the Free Speech, a black Memphis newspaper, and became its coeditor. “She has plenty of nerve, and is as sharp as a steel trap,” said T. Thomas Fortune, editor of the New York Age, a leading black newspaper.

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