Finely honed feminist biography of an impassioned crusader for civil rights in an era of vicious racial discrimination.
Ida B. Wells’ significant legacy as an activist, engaged journalist and outspoken critic of Southern lynching has been obscured by her confrontational methods, notes Bay (History/Rutgers Univ.; The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas about White People, 1830–1925, 2000). A child of Reconstruction, Wells (1862–1931) experienced firsthand the retraction of protections for freedmen that promptly followed the infamous Compromise of 1877. She took her first public stand at age 21. Commuting by train between her home in Memphis and a schoolteaching job in the countryside, she purchased a first-class ticket that entitled her to sit in the “ladies’ car,” and refused the conductor’s order to move; it took three railroad employees to drag Wells to the second-class carriage. The two lawsuits she filed against the railroad earned her character assassinations from both white and black leaders, but she was beginning to find her voice as an agitator for African-American progress and women’s concerns. She became editor and owner of the Memphis newspaper Free Speech, but after an incendiary editorial asserting that the claims of rape used to justify many lynchings were obviously false, threats on her life drove Wells from the South. She lived in New York and then Chicago, where she eventually married. She took up the gauntlet against lynching as the expression of a racist ideology that defensively defined black men as “naturally lawless and predatory.” Lecturing publicly about sex and rape at a time when such subjects were taboo, Wells was frequently excoriated, though British audiences were more welcoming and supportive. Befriended by Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, instrumental in starting such organizations as the NAACP, she remained controversial and could not garner sufficient support to elevate her to national leadership.
Bay’s intelligent, hard-hitting study puts Wells’ achievements in context and will certainly solidify the standing of this brave activist and writer.