Ida B. Wells, the forgotten equity champion of the 20th century

The cover of Ida B. Wells' autobiography.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • Ida Bell Wells fought for justice and equality in the face of hostilities.
  • She was a journalist, civil rights activist, pragmatic suffragist and founder of the integral National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

On May 19, 1918, a mob overpowered Mary Turner, a black woman at Folsom Bridge in Lowndes County, Georgia, USA.

They tied Mary's ankles and hung her upside-down from a tree, doused her with gasoline and motor oil, and set her on fire.

Her abdomen was split open and her unborn child fell to the ground, before being stamped to death by the crowd, while Mary was still breathing. Her body was then riddled by bullets.

From 1882 to 1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the US, 72 per cent of them perpetrated against blacks. The allegations used to justify the lynchings were fabricated hate accusations against blacks for violating social customs and racial expectations, including speaking to white people with less respect.

Most of the people lynched were financially successful black people, resulting in the Great Migration, the exodus of blacks from 13 southern states to more hospitable cities in the Northeast and Midwest.

Ida Bell Wells was a journalist, civil rights activist, pragmatic suffragist and founder of the integral National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). She challenged the power structure in her fight for justice, equality, and encountered hostility, hatred, and trepidation.

In Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, she explores her past as an iconic anti-lynching advocate and legendary revolutionary infatuated with justice. She also discusses reasons why her life's work was purposely omitted from academic historical books.

At 21, Ida took up a teaching job in Memphis and was asked to start writing for the Evening Star. She wrote under the pseudonym, Iola, on calamitous issues that plainly affected black society. She was known as the princess of the press within the black community.

In 1889, she consistently wrote stories about the Memphis school system. Documenting segregation in schools and how black children were receiving substandard resourced education. She bought a stake in the most radical black newspaper in Memphis, The Free Speech and Headlight, becoming its editor. The paper's circulation tripled.

Ida's best friends Thomas Moss and his wife, Betty, together with Thomas and two other friends, opened a successful grocery store in South Memphis called People's Grocery in 1889. It placed them in direct competition with William Berret, a white grocery owner who had been making money out of the black community.

On March 9, 1892, Berret incited a group of 75 men. Wearing black masks, they went for Thomas and his business partners at 2.30am. The entrepreneurs were viciously assaulted and their bodies riddled with bullets.

After the traumatising execution, Ida's passion was solely focused on the exposure of lynchings. She bought a pistol for security and travelled all over southern states during her intensive investigative research in the climate of intimidation.

Of the 728 murders she investigated, Ida detected that only a third of the victims had been accused of crimes. She penned a scathing editorial.

Her writing had simmering rage and brutal evidence. She wrote not just to inform, but to shame. Within days, Edward Ward Carmack, editor of the mainstream Memphis Commercial, begrudgingly reprinted Ida's editorial, earning her research the attention of the white press. Carmack responded by calling for the lynching of Ida.

"The black wretch who had written that foul lie should be tied and burned at a stake," he asserted.

A mob gathered outside The Free Speech and Headlight offices. Finding them deserted, they demolished the presses and destroyed the offices. Ida fled to Chicago, having lost all her property. A price was placed on her head, for hinting at the truth.


Ida continued to illuminate the agony of lynchings with verve and vigour. She wrote for the New York Age, shedding light on blacks who had fought back lynch mobs. She advocated for blacks to possess Winchester rifles to bestow the security that the law failed to provide.

In 1895, she bought Chicago's first black newspaper, The Chicago Conservator, and took her place amongst the Crème 400, a social registry of Chicago's black elite. She founded The League of Coloured Women in a campaign to legalise the voting rights of women.

Her supporters subsequently created the Ida B. Wells Women's Club. Since unemployed migrating blacks had no place to seek help, in 1908, Ida contacted Jessie Lawson, wife of Victor Lawson, a wealthy editor of Chicago Daily News, who was funding YMCA.

Jessie and Victor accepted to fund Ida's idea of the Negro Fellowship League that would create career opportunities for poor blacks. 

She then launched the Chicago Suffragist Club, mobilising poor black women, who, in 1915, voted for Chicago's first black alderman, Oscar Sandton De Priest. Ida was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her ageless service.

Jeff Anthony is a novelist, a Big Brother Africa 2 Kenyan representative and founder of Jeff's Fitness Centre; @jeffbigbrother