Sunday, February 12, 2023

Lynch Law in All Its Phases

Ida B. Wells (1862–1931)
From American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton

Ida B. Wells (left), with the family of Thomas H. Moss: Maurine (Wells’s goddaughter), Betty, and Thomas, Jr. In “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” Wells details the events surrounding Moss’s lynching in Memphis. The photograph was taken in Indianapolis, where his wife and children had relocated after the murder. (University of Chicago Library)
When Ida B. Wells traveled through Great Britain in the summer of 1893 to promote the activities of her anti-lynching campaign, white leaders in Memphis, Tennessee, inundated England with dispatches and newspapers that were short on facts and heavy with ad hominem attacks. The efforts largely failed; every attempt was ignored or minimized by British editors, who instead allowed Wells to respond. In one newspaper she wrote:
I see the Memphis Daily Commercial pays me the compliment of calling me a ‘Negro Adventuress.’ If I am become an adventuress for simply stating facts, by what name must be characterized those who furnish these facts? However revolting these lynchings, I did not perform a single one of them, nor could the wildest effort of my imagination manufacture one to equal the reality. If the same zeal to excuse and conceal the facts were exercised to put a stop to these lynchings, there would be no need for me to relate nor for the English press to give ear to these tales of barbarity.
When her Memphis opponents dialed up the rhetoric for their libelous inventions, Wells wrote that “the London papers would not touch the Commercial’s articles with a pair of tongs.” Indeed, one Liverpool newspaper told readers that the “coarse” language used in the articles published by the Commercial and the Appeal “could not possibly be reproduced in an English journal”; the indecencies merely reinforced Wells’s accusations of the “barbarism” among American defenders of lynching.

Wells had spent the previous year writing and speaking about the rise of white mob violence. On March 9, 1892, her good friend Thomas Moss and two employees were lynched after a week of targeted attacks organized by a white store proprietor against People’s Grocery, a cooperative store owned by Moss and ten other Black citizens in the Curve, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Memphis. The city and its environs had been spared the specter of lynching in the quarter century since the Memphis Massacre of 1866, and Wells, a former schoolteacher who had become part-owner of the Free Speech newspaper, had believed, as did most Americans, that lynchings nearly always occurred in response to rapes allegedly committed by Black men. The lynching of three men (and subsequent incarceration of 31 others) for the “crime” of defending their property from intruders and white mobs convinced her otherwise, and she became determined to investigate both the prevalence of extrajudicial killings and the real reasons they occurred.

Wells’s no-holds-barred style of reporting and her advocacy of migration out West made her a target, particularly since the departure of residents was causing economic chaos in the city. In the wake of the atrocity, upwards of 20% of the African American population, or nearly 6,000 people, left Memphis, many moving to new all-Black communities in Oklahoma. While she was on her way to New York after investigating living conditions in the new settlements near Oklahoma City, a mob destroyed the Free Speech offices and equipment. Reports in the media and from her friends made clear that she would be captured and probably lynched if she went back. Abandoning her home and all her possessions, she never returned.

Over the previous decade, Wells had made a name for herself among journalists and, as word reached Black-owned newspapers across the county, editors predicted that her persecutors’ tactics would backfire:
We cannot see what the “good” citizens of Memphis gained by suppressing The Free Speech. They stopped the papers of a few hundreds of subscribers and drove Miss Ida B. Wells to New York, and she is now telling the story to the hundreds of thousands of readers of The Independent and the papers that copy from it. Free Speech is not so easily suppressed as The Free Speech.
The Independent was an influential New York weekly with a storied and progressive history; shortly before Wells arrived in New York, it published “Barbarism,” an editorial denouncing lynching. There is no evidence, however, that she had been offered a position at The Independent; instead, she ended up working at a publication that would allow her far more latitude and prominence. T. Thomas Fortune, the editor of The New York Age, offered her a twice-weekly column, as well as a quarter interest in the paper in exchange for the subscription list of The Free Speech. “Miss Ida B. Wells has added her vigorous pen to the pugnacious quill-quivers of The New York Age,” announced the editor of the Detroit Plain Dealer. “If those sneaking, cowardly, Negro-hating Memphis copperheads think they have gained anything by this arrangement, they are welcome to it.”

Wells poured much of her research into her first column, published on the front page of the June 25, 1892, issue under the title “The Truth about Lynching.” That first article and subsequent columns caused such a sensation that prominent women in Brooklyn encouraged her to become a public speaker. Her first lecture, “The Afro-American in Literature,” was delivered to a literary organization on September 14. Three weeks later, on October 5, she gave her first speech on the horrors of lynching in front of a packed house at Lyric Hall in Manhattan. Overwhelmed by both the audience and the personal nature of her story, she began weeping during her speech, which mortified her for years afterward but won the sympathies of her listeners. The benefit netted $450 for her campaign, which she used to publish and distribute a revised and expanded version of “The Truth about Lynching” as a pamphlet called Southern Horrors.

She then took her campaign on the road, revising and updating her speech as she went from city to city over the course of the winter. Nobody thought to record or save her remarks, however, until she appeared, at the invitation of Reverend Joseph Cook, before an integrated but mostly white capacity-crowd in the 2,500-seat Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston. “The Boston Transcript and Advertiser gave the first notices and report of my story of any white northern papers,” Wells noted in her autobiography. She boasted how William Lloyd Garrison, Jr., used her report and his clout to convince Boston bankers to decline a loan application from the Memphis municipal government.

Cook was also editor of the influential monthly Our Day: A Record and Review of Current Reform, and he made arrangements to publish Wells’s oration in full in the next available issue. Equally riveting and horrifying, Well’s speech—and particularly her insistence on avoiding euphemism—must have shocked listeners and readers alike. As Paula Giddings notes in a recent biography, “Her determination to follow the logic of lynching into the modern age also demanded that she, in advance of most of her peers, male and female, shed the confines of Victorian attitudes.”

Notes: In 1888 armed white men occupied the courthouse in Marion, the seat of Crittenden County, Arkansas, and expelled Black office holders, including the county court judge, the county clerk, and thirteen others; they all fled to Memphis. The Supreme Court decision mentioned by Wells, Cruikshank v. United States (1876), overturned the convictions under federal law of three men who had engaged in mob violence against African Americans, ruling that their actions did not violate any federal constitutional rights and were not subject to federal jurisdiction. White Liners were white supremacists who used violence to intimidate Republican voters in the 1875 Mississippi elections.

Among the people mentioned by Wells: Albion Tourgée, from Ohio, settled in North Carolina after the war, served as a superior court judge from 1868 to 1874, and published two best-selling novels based on his experiences during Reconstruction. He later challenged the Louisiana railroad segregation law as the attorney for the plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was jailed in Baltimore in 1830 for seven weeks after being convicted of criminal libel for publishing an article linking a Massachusetts merchant to the domestic slave trade. Elijah Lovejoy, the editor of an antislavery newspaper, was killed by a mob in Alton, Illinois, in 1837. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was badly beaten in the Senate chamber by Southern Carolina congressman Preston Brooks in 1856, two days after delivering his antislavery speech “The Crime Against Kansas.” General Benjamin F. Butler died on January 11, 1893. Butler became known in the Confederacy as “Beast Butler” after he ordered that “any female” who insulted Union soldiers in New Orleans “be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.” The governors listed by Wells are James S. Hogg of Texas, William J. Northen of Georgia, Benjamin R. Tillman of South Carolina, and John P. Buchanan of Tennessee.

Some of the biographical information in the above introduction has been culled from Ida: A Sword Among Lions (2008), by Paula Giddings.

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I am before the American people to-day through no inclination of my own, but because of a deep-seated conviction that the country at large does not know the extent to which lynch law prevails in parts of the Republic, nor the conditions which force into exile those who speak the truth. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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