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Ida B. Wells, A.K.A. Civil Rights Warrior

CHERYL CORLEY, host:

Now, in honor of Women's History Month, we take a moment to remember Ida B. Wells, a fierce civil rights pioneer. Ida B. Wells co-founded the NAACP. She launched her own newspaper and was a prominent speaker and anti-lynching crusader. Wells took an uncompromising stance on the principles democracy and fearlessly stood up for women and other oppressed people. Scholar Paula Giddings visited TELL ME MORE last year to talk about her Wells biography entitled "Ida: A Sword Among Lions."

Ms. PAULA GIDDINGS (Scholar; Author, "Ida: A Sword Among Lions"): Her life goes from the Civil War all the way to 1931, through the most tumultuous and important periods of history. And she shapes and is shaped by them. Her story is so central to not only race in this country, but also to the entire culture of the country and its relationship to race. Her genius was to be able see something and draw new conclusions about it, such as lynching.

CORLEY: Ida B. Wells wrote editorials after her friends were lynched, and she went onto lead her own campaign against the violence. Again, Paula Giddings.

Ms. GIDDINGS: She understood why blacks were being lynched at a time when not even all Blacks understood it. But there was a worry that maybe blacks -because there were so many poor blacks going into the cities, et cetera, that maybe they were raping white women as was being charged, or at least being criminal. Ida understood that black people are being criminalized.

Ms. RUBY DEE (Actress): (Reading) No other nation, civilized or savage, burns its criminals. Only under the Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible.

CORLEY: That's actress Ruby Dee reenacting a portion of the speech Ida B. Wells gave in 1909, when she spoke in Atlanta before the newly formed NAACP.

Ms. DEE: (Reading) Why is mob murder committed by a Christian nation? What is the cause of this awful slaughter? The question is answered almost daily, always the same shameless falsehood, that Negroes are lynched to protect womanhood.

CORLEY: Ida B. Wells dedicated her life to activism, but also to family. She married Ferdinand Barnett, a lawyer and the editor of one of Chicago's first Black newspapers. They had four children, and Ida B. Wells Barnett faced the challenges of being a working mother.

Ms. GIDDINGS: It was not easy. Four children between 1896 and 1904, she has her last child when she was 42 years old. She believed in being with her children, but instead of staying home she would drag - sometimes, I think, actually drag these children even to the sites of lynchings and to other activists organizations and meetings that she was going to.

CORLEY: Now, Ida B. Wells never lived to see the passage of anti-lynching laws, her civil rights work brought about social change. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, marched in Washington, D.C. for universal suffrage and ran for the Illinois state legislature. And Paula Giddings says despite living in a time that often sanctioned or ignored the violence and oppression aimed at black Americans, Wells remained optimistic about the country's ability to reform itself.

Ms. GIDDINGS: She's one of the few that never becomes bitter. She's angry a lot, but she's not bitter. She's not disillusioned. She never loses hope, and this gives her another kind of energy always. Practically on her death bed, she's thinking about publishing a new newspaper. And, you know, she was always moving forward. So, it's both of things. It's the depth of the violence, and it's also the ability for someone to look at it squarely in the face and say no, but this can change. You know, we can do something. We can reform the country.

CORLEY: Ida B. Wells died March 25th, 1931. Historian and author Paula Giddings profiled the crusader in her biography "Ida: A Sword Among Lions." To hear other installments in our series TELL ME MORE About Women's History, visit our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore.

And that's our program for today. I'm Cheryl Corley, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.