Ida B. Wells and the Birmingham Connection

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Author: Latoya Farrell

Ida B. Wells, an anti-lynching activist in the United States, was born the eldest of eight children to slave parents.[1] In 1883, she moved to Memphis where her “love of liberty and self-sufficiency” founded her efforts in challenging systemic racism and institutional injustices suffered by Afro-Americans.[2] One such instance occurred on a train ride from Memphis when Wells was asked to transfer to the smoking car.[3] When she refused, the conductor and some white men forcibly removed her, sparking Wells to sue the railroad.[4] Despite being awarded damages at trial a higher court reversed the decision illustrating how Afro-Americans, though free, in practice did not receive equal protection under the law.[5]

In 1887, Wells began engaging in journalistic pursuits by submitting articles to the Free Speech—a newspaper which she would later own in part.[6] This platform would prove instrumental in both the dissemination of Wells’ criticism of southern laws and mob culture as well as an important role in grounding her activist efforts in personal experience. On May 21, 1892, in response to the eight lynchings during the previous week, Wells  wrote a critical commentary in the Free Speech that:

Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare tie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.[7]

Wells is clearly alluding to the “appreciation of white Juliets for colored Romeos.”[8] As a result, a mob destroyed the Free Speech and threatened to lynch Wells should she return. It was this event which served as an instrumental element in her speaking tour. By presenting accounts of lynchings, not merely through her experience and observances, but through the white Southern press, Wells legitimized these “Southern horrors” [9] as an objective truth and not merely sensationalistic narrative.[10]

In 1893 and 1894, Wells participated in two speaking tours of Great Britain where she appealed to the morality of English society to denounce and condemn the atrocities occurring in the United States.[11] On May 17th, 1894, Wells spoke in Birmingham at both the Young Men’s Christian Assembly in Needless Alley (New Street) and at Central Hall on Corporation Street. She also stayed at 66 Gough Road in Edgbaston.[12] Despite being well received by the press and British audiences, there remained those who questioned what “practical object can be attained” by having these meetings.[13] Writing to the Birmingham Daily Post, a City Councillor protested “against being expected to give [his] attention to matters of a municipal detail in a civilized country at a great distance” where “any interference…by English people would be an impertinence.”[14] In her response, Wells cites the work done by British moral agencies who “did much for the final overthrow of chattled slavery” as indication of the power of this “superior civilization” to affect change in America.[15]

It is important to consider the social context in which these speaking tours occurred. Significant changes in slavery legislation in Great Britain saw the enactment of the British Slavery Abolition Act (1833) which partially abolished slavery in the United Kingdom and its colonies. In America, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 laid the foundation for the 13th Amendment (1865) which constitutionalized the abolition of slavery and indentured servitude. In the 1880s, we saw the emergence of discourse concerning the age of consent and a new form of “sexual danger” where white working-class women and girls became the victims of older, privileged men in the trade of “white slavery”.[16] In the span of sixty years, discussions around power and autonomy, civil rights and liberties, consent and sexuality were at the center of transnational debates.

For the Afro-American, equality did not come with emancipation. Emancipated black men and women found themselves at the intersection of three converging roads: race, class and gender. Southern racist hegemonic characterizations of black people as bestial, primitive, hyper-sexual inferior beings facilitated the morality of racial purity. Under this guise of morality, miscegenation laws were enacted making interracial marriages illegal. Essentially these laws criminalized the “legitimate union of the races,” however, it left “white [men] free to seduce all the coloured girls he [could]”.[17] Previously considered as property, the concept of ownership and black women’s bodies remained the prevailing theme among Southern white men. Black women were hyper-sexualized and viewed as available for white male consumption.

On the other hand, “it was death to the colored man who yield[ed] to the force and advances of a similar attraction in white women.”[18] White women were viewed as quintessentially moral and virtuous. Notions of submissiveness and frailty facilitated the rise of the Southern white hero chivalrously defending the honor of Southern women. Southern white males essentially undermined white women’s sexual autonomy by dictating the appropriateness of their sexual partner.

Wells was critical of miscegenation laws because it provided white women a failsafe. By accusing black men of rape, they could maintain their socially constructed image of purity and virtue. The use of rape to “legitimize efforts to control and discipline the black community” cast black men as “potential threats to the sanctity of white womanhood.”[19] These laws coupled with mob vigilantism and racist values provided the foundation for one third of the 728 lynchings that occurred in the south in 1892.[20]

There were no laws against lynching in the United States at the time. Wells recognized that the act of lynching was a political, economic, and social tool used to “polic[e] the color line” and oppress the Afro-American community.[21] Essentially, vigilantism was the use of group violence for the creation and maintenance of systemic power.[22] White Southerners had lost their proprietary interest in preserving black bodies as labour; they no longer “owned the Negro body and soul” and, therefore, no longer considered them “valuable.”[23] This extralegal subversion of due process was normalized and condoned through the acquiescence and participation of legal officials, the lack of prosecution by the courts, and overall acceptance by Southern white society.

Through power imbalance, white hegemony “created an asymmetrical field of justice”, permitting the rise of “mob justice” and the “suspension of certain applications of the law.”[24] Lynch mob participants went “unidentified” and unprosecuted despite the constitutional right of freed blacks for equal protection under the law. Even, the illegal act of lynching itself was applied asymmetrically. Although black women were also lynched, victims of vigilante violence were overwhelmingly black males. In the social hierarchy, black men posed a larger economic and social threat to the sanctity of white society. White men could control the Afro-American community through fear and deprivation or life while simultaneously preserving their sexual “entitlement” to black women.

Examining the importance of historical hegemonic power dynamics in creating the law or, as in this case, subverting legal norms, allows us to critically think about the residual institutional oppressive systems that linger from the days of slavery and lynching. The pervasiveness of these systemic inequalities is relevant to Afro-Americans in the current climate of police-race relations in the United States. Comparisons have been drawn between lynching and disproportionate shootings of unarmed black people by the police. The lack of legal consequences have led Afro-Americans to distrust the legal system. While there are major differences in overt racist intent, certain institutional biases have worked to preserve the myth of the aggressive, hyper-masculine black man; something to be feared.[25] This fear has encouraged an environment resulting in the criminalization of colour; manifested in the over representation of Afro-Americans, particularly black males, in the criminal justice system. The creators and framers of black identity directly affect how Afro-Americans interact with the law and how they are viewed by the law.

Wells recognized the need for allies to help change the law and condoned illegal practices. She often worked with progressive whites, like Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Moncure D. Conway (who was pastoring a London congregation during Wells’s British lecture tours), and Albion Tourgée to further anti-lynching goals.[26] Wells had to play the game within the confines of her current social climate, often used analogous circumstances to root her anti-lynching activism in a context that was both relatable and understandable to the British public.[27] She “appealed to audiences by invoking current debates, and using familiar rhetoric[c]” when discussing marginalization of and injustice towards Afro-Americans.[28] She sometimes watered down what she was saying to make it more palatable to British audiences and played to her status as a “good-looking mulatto” to appear less aggressive or offensive to white audiences.[29] What does this say about personal narratives and their potential consumption by those who are not members of the oppressed group? However, allies must also recognize that “where systems of race, gender, and class domination converge…intervention strategies based solely on the experiences of women do not share the same class or race backgrounds will be of limited help to women who because of race and class face different obstacles.”[30] It is important to allow those who are affected by the unequal application of law space at the table. To be successfully in achieve substantive equality, allies and the dominant voices must recognize the structural intersectionality of the issue.[31] If those leading the charge are not conscious of the intersections within the larger group, they are at risk of silencing those marginalized individuals within the struggle.

Footnotes

[1] Trudier Harris, ‘Introduction’ in Henry Louis Gates Jr. (ed), Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (Oxford University Press 1991) 3, 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid 5.

[7] Ida B. Wells, ‘Untitled’ Free Speech (Memphis, 21 May 1892) in Ida B. Wells, ‘A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894’ in Henry Louis Gates Jr. (ed), Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (Oxford University Press 1991) 138, 145.

[8] Ida B. Wells, ‘Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases’ in Henry Louis Gates Jr. (ed), Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (Oxford University Press 1991) 14.

[9] Wells, ‘Southern Horrors’ (n 8), 19.

[10] Teresa Zackodnik, ‘Ida B. Wells and ‘American Atrocities’ in Britain’ (2005) 28 Women’s Studies International Forum 259, 263.

[11] Ida B. Wells, ‘Lynch Law in the United States: to the Editor of the Daily Post’ Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, 14 May 1894) <https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ead/pdf/ibwells-0008-008-04.pdf> accessed 29 October 2017.

[12] Ibid.

[13] A City Councillor, ‘A Wearied Councillor’s Protest: to the Editor of the Daily Post’ Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, 12 May 1894) <https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ead/pdf/ibwells-0008-008-04.pdf> accessed 29 October 2017.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Wells, ‘Lynch Law in the United States’ (n 11).

[16] Zackodnik, ‘Ida B. Wells and ‘American Atrocities (n 10), 261.

[17] Wells, ‘A Red Record’ (n 7), 140.

[18] Wells, ‘Southern Horrors’ (n 8), 19.

[19] Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’ (1991) 43(6) Stanford Law Review 1241, 1265.

[20] Wells, ‘Southern Horrors’ (n 8), 30.

[21] David Squires, ‘Outlawry: Ida B. Wells and Lynch Law’ (2015) 67(1) American Quarterly 141, 149.

[22] Kathleen Belew, ‘Lynching and Power in the United States: Southern, Western, and National Vigilante Violence’ (2014) 12(1) History Compass 84, 92.
< http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxye.bham.ac.uk/doi/10.1111/hic3.12121/full>

[23] Wells, ‘A Red Record’ (n 7) 140.

[24] Ibid 150.

[25] While discussing the 1994 Crime Bill, Hillary Clinton young black males in violent neighbourhoods as “Super-predators”. Ida B. Wells also discusses the medias characterization of Afro-American men as barbarians “preying upon weak and defenceless women”; advocating for the “prompt, speedy and extreme punishment” for their “beastial propensities.” Wells, ‘Southern Horrors’ (n 8), 32.

[26] Carolyn L. Karcher, ‘Ida B. Wells and her allies against lynching: A transnational perspective’ (2005) 3(2) Comparative American Studies an International Journal 131, 132.

[27] Zackodnik, ‘Ida B. Wells and ‘American Atrocities (n 10), 261, 265.

[28] Ibid 264.

[29] Zackodnik, ‘Ida B. Wells and ‘American Atrocities (n 10), 268.

[30] Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins” (n 19) 1246.

[31] Ibid 1245. Crenshaw identifies this concept as “multi-layered and routinized forms of domination that often converge.” These explains that these intersecting patterns of subordination do not have to be intentional but that the “imposition of one burden…interacts with pre0-existing vulnerabilities.”

Bibliography

A City Councillor, ‘A Wearied Councillor’s Protest: to the Editor of the Daily Post’ Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, 12 May 1894)
<https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ead/pdf/ibwells-0008-008-04.pdf> accessed 29 October 2017.

Crenshaw K, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’ (1991) 43(6) Stanford Law Review 1241

Duster A M (ed), Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (The University of Chicago Press 1970)

Harris T, ‘Introduction’ in Henry Louis Gates Jr. (ed), Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (Oxford University Press 1991) 3

Karcher C L, ‘Ida B. Wells and her allies against lynching: A transnational perspective’ (2005) 3(2) Comparative American Studies an International Journal 131

Squires D, ‘Outlawry: Ida B. Wells and Lynch Law’ (2015) 67(1) American Quarterly 141

Wells I B, ‘Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases’ in Henry Louis Gates Jr. (ed), Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (Oxford University Press 1991) 14

— ‘Lynch Law in the United States: to the Editor of the Daily Post’ Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, 14 May 1894) <https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ead/pdf/ibwells-0008-008-04.pdf> accessed 29 October 2017.

— ‘A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894’ in Henry Louis Gates Jr. (ed), Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (Oxford University Press 1991) 138

— ‘Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to the Death’ in Henry Louis Gates Jr. (ed), Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett (Oxford University Press 1991) 253

Unknown, ‘Lynch Law in America’ Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, 17 May 1894)
<https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ead/pdf/ibwells-0008-010-06.pdf> accessed 29 October 2017.

Unknown, ‘Lynch Law in the United States: Protest by Birmingham Audiences’ Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, 17 May 1894) < https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ead/pdf/ibwells-0008-010-05.pdf> accessed 29 October 2017.

Unknown, ‘Untitled article’ Birmingham Daily Gazette (Birmingham, 18 May 1894) <https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ead/pdf/ibwells-0008-010-07.pdf> accessed 29 October 2017.

Zackodnik T, ‘Ida B. Wells and ‘American Atrocities’ in Britain’ (2005) 28 Women’s Studies International Forum 259

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