Against All Odds

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

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At 67, saying she was tired of the “do-nothings” in politics, she ran for the Illinois state senate. She finished last but vowed to learn from the mistakes of the campaign.

She devoted much of her remaining energy to an autobiography. “Our youth are entitled to the facts of race history which only the participants can give,” she wrote in the preface. She stopped writing mid-sentence in what would be the last chapter of her book. After a day of shopping, she complained of feeling ill. Two days later, she lapsed into a coma; she died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931.

Today, Wells is remembered as a social pioneer, a woman of many firsts—in journalism and civil rights. But she’s best known for her courageous and often lonely battle against the scourge of lynching. “She had a vision of how to execute that kind of struggle, not on moral grounds alone, but as a social justice issue,” says Without Sanctuary curator Joseph Jordan. “Her methodology would not only be used throughout the antilynching movement but also in the work of the NAACP and by the civil rights and human rights activists that followed.”

“The awful crimes that occurred in this country should not be forgotten,” says Tazewell Thompson. “They can still happen today, as the lynching in Jasper, Texas [of James Byrd in 1998], proves.” But thanks in part to Wells, the Byrd lynchers were not greeted by cheering crowds or aided by lawmen. They were prosecuted.

No letter pleased Ida B. Wells more than the one she received from a Mississippi sharecropper during her antilynching campaign. “The only thing to offer you in your great undertaking [is] prayer,” the man wrote. “The words ‘God bless her’ is written here on every acre of ground and on every doorstep and inside of every home.”


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