Cornel West on What the Courageous Ida B. Wells Taught Us About the Black Freedom Movement

Excerpted from Black Prophetic Fire by Cornel West in Dialogue with and Edited by Christa Buschendorf. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.


Editor's Note: In Black Prophetic Fire, Cornel West, in conversation with scholar Christa Buschendorf, aims to shed light on what is missing from the fight for justice today by examining past Black leaders. In the following excerpt, they discuss the work of Ida B. Wells. 

We wanted to end our conversation on a high note full of the prophetic fire we started with. Thus in January 2013, we met on two consecutive days to discuss first Malcolm X and then Ida B. Wells. As far apart as they are in time and as different as they are in social background, they share an uncompromising radical spirit that is expressed in fearless speech. Yet such boldness is the more extraordinary in a woman, let alone a woman in the nineteenth century. As a female voice in the Black prophetic tradition, Wells, like Ella Baker, has often been a victim of public amnesia. We want to honor her outstanding example of prophetic witness by giving her the last word.

CHRISTA BUSCHENDORF: With Ida B. Wells, we go back to the nineteenth century, where we started. Historically speaking, she stands between Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois, and she knew both men personally. Wells was the pioneering figure in the anti-lynching campaigns of her day, and the way in which she courageously and undauntedly took up a difficult and dangerous struggle against prejudices about the “beastly nature” of the Black man, certainly renders her a worthy candidate in our series of long-distance freedom fighters in the Black prophetic tradition. Like Du Bois, she was shaped by Victorian America, and her bourgeois background means that evaluating her from today’s point of view is difficult. We have to contextualize her, and so we will try to get at her core by doing just that. So could you start by assessing Ida B. Wells’s importance in the tradition of the Black struggle for freedom?

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"589290","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image media-image-left","height":"480","style":"width: 320px; height: 480px; float: left;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"320"}}]]CORNEL WEST: Ida B. Wells is not only unique, but she is the exemplary figure full of prophetic fire in the face of American terrorism, which is American Jim Crow and Jane Crow, when lynching occurred every two and a half days for over fifty years in America. And this is very important, because Black people in the New World, in the Diaspora, Brazil, Jamaica, Barbados, were all enslaved, but no group of Black people were Jim Crowed other than US Negroes. And what I mean by Jim Crow is not just terrorized, not just stigmatized, not just traumatized, but, what we talked about before, niggerized. Black people were first reaching citizenship after the most barbaric of all civil wars in modern times—750,000 dead, we are told now. Black people are made slaves, then citizens, then are remade into subjects who are subjected to an American terrorist order—despite Black resistance. They are no longer slaves in the old sense, yet not citizens, but sub-citizens, namely subjects, namely Negroes, namely niggers who are wrestling with this terror.

Why is this important? Because, I would argue, Jim Crow in some ways is as important as slavery in understanding the mentality, understanding the institutions, and understanding the destiny of Black folk. A lot of people want to jump from slavery into the civil rights movement. But, no, right when the American social order was providing opportunities for white immigrants all around the world between 1881— Let’s begin with the pogroms that escalate in Russia at the time with the death of the tsar and the waves of white immigrants who come to the United States and who begin to gain access to some of the opportunities afforded here—that is precisely the time in which Jim Crow emerged. It consolidates in the 1890s, along with the American imperial order in the Philippines and Cuba, Guam, and other territories. So you get six million people of color outside the United States, and you get the terrorized, traumatized, stigmatized order, which is a Jim Crow order, in the United States. That’s the context for Ida.

Why is she so unique? Well, the textbook version of Black history is the following. You get W. E. B. Du Bois versus Booker T. Washington: The nice little deodorized discourse of Booker T., who is tied to the white elites, who has access to tremendous amounts of money, who has his own political machine, moving in to take over Black newspapers and pulling Black civic organizations under his control while refusing to say a mumbling word publicly about lynching, which was the raw face of American terrorism against Black people. Then you get Du Bois, who did want to talk about civil rights, who did want to talk about political rights, but in no way targeted the lynching face of American terrorism the way Ida B. Wells did. Ida B. Wells, in so many ways, teaches us something that we rarely want to acknowledge: that the Black freedom movement has always been an anti-terrorist movement, that Black people in America had a choice between creating a Black al-Qaeda or a movement like Ida B. Wells’s, which was going to call into question the bestiality and barbarity and brutality of Jim Crow and American terrorism and lynching, but would do it in the name of something that provided a higher moral ground and a higher spiritual ground given her Christian faith, not opting for a Black al-Qaeda that says, “You terrorize us; we terrorize you. You kill our children; we kill your children.” No, not an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, where we end up both blind and toothless. She said: “We want a higher moral ground, but I’m going to hit this issue head-on.”

And that is in so many ways relevant today, because we live in an age in which people are talking about terrorism, about terror, all the time. Here we have much to learn from an Ida B. Wells, who was born a slave, orphaned young—both her parents die of yellow fever in Hollis Springs, Mississippi. She makes her way with two of her sisters to Memphis, is run out of Memphis, even as she begins to emerge as a prophetic voice in Free Speech and Headlight, a newspaper that she begins to edit, and then with the lynching of three men in Memphis, brother Tom and brother Calvin and brother Will, on March 9, 1892, the white elite puts a bounty on her head, because she wants to tell the truth—like Malcolm X, parrhesia again, the fearless speech. Thank God for T. Thomas Fortune, who welcomed her to New York and invited her to write for his newspaper, the New York Age. And this was where she published the two classics, Southern Horrors, in 1892, and A Red Record, in 1895.

And it is important to use the language of American terrorism, because we live in an age where, when people think of terrorism, they usually think of a very small group of Islamic brothers and sisters, whereas, of course, terrorism has been integral to the emergence and the sustenance of the American democratic experiment, beginning with indigenous peoples and slavery. But after the Civil War, we get a new form of terrorism—crimes against humanity—that sits at the center of American life, and Ida B. Wells forces us to come to terms with that.

CHB: Maybe we should mention the interim of Reconstruction, because right after the Civil War the situation was improving in terms of political power of Blacks. And what Ida B. Wells reveals then—in contrast to the understanding of most people, including Black people, including Douglass—what she reveals is that it is in reaction to the very success of Black people, their rising on the social ladder, their becoming respectable, learned, and a political power, too, that terrorism sets in. And she saw through the story that was fabricated at the time that this was all about Black men wanting white women; she saw that it was a pretext; that, in fact, what this was all about was a reaction to a change of the hierarchical order, and, of course, especially in the South, where white people did not want Black people to rise. And I think that is the truth she told in all fearlessness, a truth that was very important even for Blacks to understand.

CW: I think that’s very true. Actually, I would go to 1876 and 1877 with the so-called Compromise, which is a capitulation that allowed for the withdrawal of the military troops in the South, which would allow for states’ rights to become predominant, which would allow for white supremacists powers to take over so that the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils would move into positions of power culturally, economically, and politically, and so Black folk would be subject to that kind of terror. The troop withdrawal allowed for an emerging reconciliation between the former foes, the Confederacy and the Union. Now the South and the North are able to view themselves more and more as a family, and they are unified by the scapegoat, they are unified by these Black folk who are sacrificed with the withdrawal of the troops.

It had much to do, of course, with the fact that other issues were emerging, issues of depression, issues of international relations, and they were just tired of dealing with the so-called race question; they were tired of dealing with the legacy of white supremacy. So that even great figures like William Lloyd Garrison—for whom I have tremendous respect, who gave his time, energy, and life to abolish slavery—do not engage in the kind of follow-through to deal with the vicious legacy of white supremacy after the Civil War. Now that slavery is over, the notion is “Thank God, it’s all done; the business is over.”

Now, let me tell a story. I was at West Point the other day and was talking to a number of students and professors there. The biggest picture in the library they have at West Point is of Robert E. Lee, who was superintendent of West Point when he was part of the Union army, but was only a colonel in the Union army. He became a general in the Confederate army. And the painting they have of him is in Confederate attire, with a Black slave bowing in the right corner. So Lee is a general in the army of rebels and traitors against West Point. They were telling me that the reconciliation on the military front began when the soldiers from the South joined the soldiers in the North in the Spanish-American War, so that the imperial front becomes a space for them of coming together. Then, by the end of the Spanish-American War, lo and behold, West Point embraces the memory of Robert E. Lee. Then, in 1971, President Nixon tries to force them to have a monument to Confederate troops and Confederate soldiers. Nixon appoints Alexander Haig to establish the monument. There was Black opposition—they had just admitted Black soldiers to West Point in the sixties—the Black cadets strongly rejected the idea; there was tremendous disarray, and West Point gave up on the idea. So you see, this tribute to the legacy of white supremacy remains integral to West Point, past and present.

So on the imperial front, after Reconstruction, the white Southerners and the white Northerners were able to come together, subordinate the peoples of color in Hawaii, in Guam, in the Philippines, in Puerto Rico, and domestically subordinate the Black folk, so that, lo and behold, the Confederate and the Union view themselves as part of a cantankerous family not really at odds over whether the Union ought to exist or not, but a cantankerous family whose members have more in common than what separates them. And there is a united front against Black folk internally and brown folk externally, and to me this is really important, because Ida B. Wells is willing to speak courageously and sacrificially and candidly about the brutality of American terrorism at home and acknowledge the terrorism abroad.

Unlike Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells publicly denounced lynching. Du Bois is not really hit by the issue until he sees the knuckles of lynching victim Sam Hose on display in Atlanta, gives up his detached, disinterested, scientific orientation and becomes a political activist—now this is seven years after Ida B. Wells has a bounty on her head!

CHB: True. But it needed that confrontation, and he reacts to the experience, whereas Ida B. Wells has that experience earlier; she is in the South. And in the Memphis lynching, one of the three victims, Tom Moss, was one of her close friends; she was godmother to his daughter. So I think it is about the immediate confrontation, and when Du Bois is confronted, it changes his life just as much as it changed her life.

CW: That’s true. But you know, Du Bois is in Nashville in the 1880s as a student at Fisk University and then teaches those two summers there in a small town in Tennessee, so he must have heard about the lynching and the terror.

CHB: In his autobiography he writes about that very different kind of— He would not call it terror but a kind of discrimination of Blacks in the South that he was not used to. But as far as I remember, he does mention lynching, but it is the lynching of Sam Hose that, as he puts it, “startled me to my feet.”

CW: Exactly. But there is something about—and I love it—sister Ida B. Wells’s rebellious spirit. As a youth, she had a deep suspicion of authority. She reminds me of Malcolm, and Malcolm reminds me of her in terms of this willingness to be candid and honest about any sources of pain and suffering, and you speak to it directly regardless of the price, regardless of what burden goes along with it, or whatever cost you have to pay.

CHB: The first time she was so courageous was when her parents had just died and the community decided to distribute the children, her five younger siblings, to be adopted by other families, and as a young girl of sixteen, she says: “No. No way. You can’t do that. Give me a job instead, and I will take care of my brothers and sisters.” It was unheard of for so young a woman to be the independent head of a family, and it was highly suspicious, and she got the reaction of the community in the form of really vicious slander: when Dr. Gray, a white physician, returned the savings her dying father had entrusted to him, and when the community noticed the transaction taking place in the town square, she is immediately suspected of prostituting herself. So we see early in life the bravery of a young woman who would take the responsibility for her family, which was something that did not fi t into the Victorian model of womanhood, and thus people resented it and consequently suspected her of a transgression of quite a different type. That is the first moment when you see her courage.

CW: So true. Then we get her Rosa Parks–like act of protest on the railroad train. That’s still very early in her life. She refuses to give up her seat in the first-class ladies’ coach and is removed by force. She takes it to the court; she wins; the case goes to a higher court; she loses; she must pay fees, but she takes a stand. You are so right about this willingness of this young, militant, uncompromising, bold, and fearless woman.

CHB: And she sacrifices, because she can’t finish school, and when later she attends a graduation ceremony at her former school, she is in tears because she was not able to graduate. That was the price she had to pay. She makes up for it with her own tireless efforts to learn and to read, but it is a price she has to pay for speaking out and for taking care of her family.

CW: And as a teacher taking care of the family, she discovered that she was being paid thirty dollars a month and the white teachers are being paid more than twice that much. She could already see the deeply racist practices there. And we should note, of course, her summers at Fisk University. Like Du Bois, she did spend time at Fisk University. But it also shows she has a tremendous drive for studying and love of learning, not just for knowledge in the abstract but also the very process of coming to know, the very process of being committed to exploring, a sense of intellectual adventure, trying to be culturally cultivated in a variety of different ways by means of voracious reading, conversation, dialogue.

CHB: As a young woman teaching, she reaches out to young men. In part, of course, she is looking for a partner; that was natural at her age. But sometimes what she wants is a companion to talk with and to be inspired by, someone who is an intellectual, and she loves these discussions but has the problem of decorum, because she is admonished that this is not done. You need a chaperone, all these rules of etiquette against which she often rebels. Another point, though, in terms of learning and aspiring to more learning: she is never allowed to teach above the fourth grade, and at one point she realizes that this is unsatisfactory—and here her activist side comes to the fore. She wants to be more influential by becoming a journalist and discovers that this is her true vocation. She writes: “It was through journalism that I found the real me.”

CW: You know, Ida B. Wells was the first Black correspondent to a major white newspaper, the Daily Inter-Ocean in Chicago, when she was on her tour in Britain, forming the British Anti-Lynching Society—not because Britain had a lynching problem. Britain was deeply racist, but they never had a Jim Crow system. Yet progressive British whites were deeply concerned about the lynching taking place in America. And Ida went there in the 1890s twice and helped form that society and wrote various articles back to that Chicago newspaper. But as a journalist, she had a vocation to tell the truth at an observational level. It reminds me in some ways of the great text of Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimké, American Slavery As It Is, which became a best seller in 1839. And it was observational; it was like William Cobbett in England or Harriet Martineau, where you observe and picture for your audience in a dramatic fashion the suffering and the misery of your fellow human beings, in this case of Blacks vis-à-vis a white audience. And what Ida B. Wells does as a journalist is not just report in a regular way, but she presents these dramatic portraits with statistics, with empirical data, but also stories. Ida was saying: “Let me tell you about these seventeen lynchings, where the myth was to protect white womanhood’s purity and so forth. No, there was a fear of economic competition. No, there was a sense of arbitrary targeting of these Black men that had nothing to do whatsoever with white sisters.” So you are right about the journalistic vocation and the calling. And, my God, journalism is about dead in America today, given that most journalists are extensions of the powers that be, but in those days there was prophetic witness, and Ida B. Wells was one of the great pioneers of this prophetic journalism.

CHB: Yes, she was what today we would call an investigative journalist, because she often travelled to the places where the lynching had happened and she investigated what was going on there. And then she found out what you just said about the pretext of lynching and the truth. But sometimes she was too radical even for her time. In May 1892, in the context of the Memphis lynching, she warned her white male fellow citizens that they should not go too far:

Eight Negroes lynched since last issue of the Free Speech. Three were charged with killing white men and five with raping white women. Nobody in this section believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will over-reach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.

But here, as in so many other cases, when she was really radical, she had to cope with the consequences, and the consequences were severe, because, in this case, with her insinuation of consensual relationships between white women and Black men, she had enraged the white elite of Memphis, who in reaction formed a “committee” of leading citizens who completely demolished the printing office of the Free Speech. But often she was even too provocative for her journalist colleagues, so even at a time when, as you pointed out, journalism was more substantial, she went over the top sometimes.

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