“One had better die fighting injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
Those are the powerful words of Ida B Wells, a pioneering journalist and activist whose lifelong mission was to expose the brutal racism embedded in US society.
Wells was born a slave in Holy Springs, Mississippi, in 1862. The year after her birth, slaves were officially freed under the emancipation proclamation.
Yet even after the end of the Civil War in 1865, the south remained segregated.
One of Wells’ early stands against segregation came when she was 21.
In 1884 she refused to move to the segregated black carriage of a train after she purchased a first class ticket. Wells was then forcefully moved by a ticket collector.
After the incident, she sued the train company and was compensated $500—the equivalent of around $13,000 today. But the ruling was then overturned.
While working as a teacher she began writing about race and inequality and became the co-founder and editor of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper. Some of her most important work was in the exposure and condemnation of lynching.
Wells wrote pamphlets, articles and books documenting the lynchings of black people that often went completely unreported.
She wrote that “The very frequent inquiry made after my lectures by interested friends is ‘What can I do to help the cause?’ The answer always is, ‘Tell the world the facts.’”
Wells travelled to different states to talk to eyewitnesses, examine photographs of victims and visit places where people were murdered. She did all this in the face of racist intimidation and was even driven from Memphis by death threats.
Wells fought against the racist—but widely believed— opinion that lynching was about protecting white women from sexual assault by black men. Her investigations found that rape had not been even alleged in two thirds of the lynchings.
And she argued that lynching wasn’t about rape, it was about asserting power and racist terror.
Alongside her journalism, Wells was an activist. She argued that women’s freedom must be fought for alongside the movement against racism.
When Wells settled in Chicago, Illinois she founded the first black suffrage organisation.
Wells constantly pushed back against the racist ideas of some white feminist suffragists that saw suffrage for black women as a step too far.
At the 1913 Women's Suffrage Parade in Washington DC, for example, white organisers of the march demanded that the black women march at the back of the demonstration.
When an Illinois organiser told Wells she could only march if she was with an all-black delegation she refused to join unless she could march under the Illinois banner.
She was also a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). But Wells was to break away from the NAACP because of what she called its “white and elite black leadership”—and they perceived her as too radical. Wells fought tirelessly until her death in 1931 to expose the racist and sexist brutality of the system we live in and to try to change it.