For more than 32 years I have written a column about Martin Luther King Jr. on or near the holiday dedicated to his memory. I have always felt sorry for those of a younger generation who were unable to listen first hand to his inspiring and uplifting words. King’s view of non-violent protest has been a model for many who have followed him.
I was 20 when the news bulletin telling of his murder crossed the screen. Assassinations had a terrible run in the turbulent sixties. It was a time of trials and tears. Even now, when I hear his “I had a dream” speech I get chills.
I still wonder what good he might have done, had he lived longer. Would we have a more peaceful and just nation today?
Just recently, as part of a tribute to King’s memory, I learned about a voice I had never heard before. Hearing of her now, I delved deep to learn more. And now, readers, I introduce you to Ida B Wells.
This amazing woman was born in Mississippi in 1862 at the end of the Civil War. Her brave voice spoke up against violence and for a women’s right to vote. Her courage and determination to have her voice heard was powerful.
She was honored after her death by no less prestigious award than the Pulitzer Prize citation. She was honored for her outstanding, courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the lynching era.
Ida was born a slave. Along with her parents, she was made free with the Emancipation Declaration. After freedom, tragedy hit the family when a Yellow Fever epidemic took the lives of both Ida’s parents and her youngest sibling. This left Ida with five siblings to care for. Ida stepped up to the task to prevent her siblings from being separated.
She began teaching, a vocation she continued to honor when she later became a journalist and an early leader in the civil rights movement. Ida once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Ida spent her entire life fighting to keep that light lit, using her voice to stop violence, advance civil rights and the right to vote for all women.
Wells was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization which still thrives today. Her life was dedicated to combating prejudice and violence, fighting for African American equity and equality for women. Wells became the most famous black woman in the United States in her time.
Certainly, her strength and conviction helped Wells lead the way for the future actions of such people as Rosa Parks. She lit a light for others to follow. At one time Ida was the co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper. This helped to give her a voice to reach people, to inform them, but also to inspire, and to promote action. Wells is known for her quote, “One had better to die fighting than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap”
In 1890, Wells was enraged by the lynching of three of her friends so she went into action documenting lynchings in the United States. Ida wrote the well-known pamphlet “Southern Horrors”. She investigated the argument that the lynchings were of black criminals only. Instead, it was her passion to expose these lynching’s as the barbaric practice whites used in the South to intimidate and oppress.
Wells used her life, her voice and her pen to argue for civil rights, to argue against violence and for the women’s movement. Wells words live on, “There must always be a remedy for wrong and injustice, if only we knew how to find it. Virtue knows no color lines” Sometime her words cut with their truth. “The mob spirit has grown with the increasing intelligence of the African American.”
For me, the horror of lynching came to life when I read the book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee in 1960. This book inspired me to learn about these dark times in America’s history, when hate overcame right.
Historian Joseph Crespireo explained: “In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird was probably the most widely read book about dealing with the violence and race issue.” Lynchings were a wide-spread occurrence in the United States pre-Civil War.
The horrendous acts were to continue until they finally ended with the civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s. On April 26, 1920, in Montgomery Alabama, there was a National Memorial erected specifically to document the lynchings.
I can imagine a meeting in heaven between Ida Wells, Harper Lee, and Martin Luther King Jr. As they look down, their heads are nodding with the hope that finally, perhaps, their voices have been heard. Perhaps our growing awareness because of their desire for truth to be heard gives them a certain measure of peace. And with that new understanding, maybe a kinder world.