REMEMBERING IDA B. WELLS: HUMAN RIGHTS AND FEMINIST TRAILBLAZER
A giant of the independent black press and early media literacy educator, Ida B. Wells’ leadership and uncompromising vision continue to reverberate for women of color. As we recognize Black History Month and Women’s History Month, her life is a powerful testament to the complex relationship between black women’s activism and the double burden. In an era before daycare and paid leave, Wells, like scores of other black women before her, had to negotiate the divide between her domestic responsibilities and her life’s work as the greatest media watchdog of her time.
Wells Struggled for Recognition
Accused of not knowing her place because she challenged the vacuum in male leadership around lynching, Wells struggled for recognition and compensation for her work. The constant juggling of her roles as writer, activist, orator and mother loomed large in both her public and private stance on women’s rights.
Wells once boasted that she was perhaps the only nursing mother to travel nationwide to give political addresses. After the birth of her second child she announced that she was retiring from public activism to devote all her energies to motherhood, only to come blazing back onto the national stage three months later to protest the lynching of the black postmaster and his family.
In her fearless defense of lynching victims and African Americans’ right to due process, Wells often bucked the backward conventional wisdom of the era. When she began her campaign against lynching in the late 19th century there wasn’t consensus among African Americans that lynching was worthy of a national social justice movement. In her editorials, she also exposed the long history of black female sexual exploitation by white men.
Media Education Advocate
Despite her challenges to the American criminal justice system, her long record of publication at home and abroad, and her influence on Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois (both of whom were ambivalent if not threatened by her single-mindedness), Wells’ legacy remains undervalued. Constantly battling the racism of some white feminists in the suffrage movement, Wells’ was also eclipsed by male leaders like Douglass and DuBois. Her relative obscurity parallels her conflicts with black political establishment that deemed her too radical. Remarking that “the people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press,” Wells remains a beacon of justice and a testament to the power of black feminist organizing.
By: Sikivu Hutchinson, Senior Human Relations Consultant