Ida B. Wells
A Black Woman's Fight Against Lynch Terror

Martin, Lisa
Date Written:  2014-06-13
Publisher:  International Communist League
Year Published:  2014
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX16519

Born a slave in 1862 in the middle of the Civil War, Ida B. Wells was in the forefront of the fight for black rights in the post-Reconstruction era -- a time of widespread lynch-rope terror when black people, although not returned to slavery, were being solidified as a race-colour caste at the bottom of American society. She refused to accommodate racist reaction in any way and so was anathema to those like Booker T. Washington and his apologists who repudiated militant struggle against the racist status quo.



In Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, published decades after her death in 1970, Ida wrote: “Like many another person who had read of lynching in the South, I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching; that perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life.” But these three black men were lynched “with just as much brutality as other victims of the mob; and they had committed no crime against white women.” She described how this “opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.”

In her 1895 pamphlet, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, Wells stated: “During the past thirty years in the South...more than ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution ... and for all these murders only three white men have been tried, convicted and executed.” During the 1890s, lynchings in the South averaged two per week. Black people were resisting segregation and disenfranchisement and these lynchings were used to force acceptance of Jim Crow.

Wells was in favor of black armed self-defense. In her autobiography, she relates how she bought a pistol “after Tom Moss was lynched, because I expected some cowardly retaliation from the lynchers. I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.”

In her pamphlet Southern Horrors, which the newspaper New York Age published after she was driven out of Memphis, she further stressed the importance of armed self-defense for black people:

"Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year, the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves…. The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense. The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life."

Contrary to the pacifist mythology of the civil rights movement, there is a long history of armed self-defense on the part of black people. The approximately 200,000 black soldiers who fought in the Civil War held onto their arms as long as they could. In the 1930s, Southern union organizers and sharecroppers armed to defend themselves. During the 1950s and ’60s, black gun clubs such as that started by Robert F. Williams in Monroe, North Carolina, and the Deacons for Defense in Louisiana were organized around the country to stop racist Klan terror. Many black soldiers returning from Korea and Vietnam refused to put their guns down and utilized their military training to defend the civil rights struggle from Klan terror. The racist capitalist state has systematically disarmed black people in order to fully subjugate them.

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