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8.11.11 Ida Wells Heard Here: She Urges the Negroes of America to Organize

Wells, Ida B.
Library of Congress

“Ida Wells Heard Here: She Urges the Negroes of America to Organize,” The Sun, Vol. LXL, no. 333, July 30, 1894. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress,

An African American woman named Ida B. Wells wrote this article. She was born into slavery in 1862. After the Civil War, her parents were active in promoting rights and opportunities for their fellow African Americans. When she was 16, Wells’s parents died and she became a teacher to support herself and some of her siblings. A few years later, she filed a lawsuit against a railroad company for forcing her to leave her first-class seat after buying a ticket for that fare. This was her first act in a long career of working to secure civil rights. She established her own newspapers to share news and stories important to African Americans. Wells also did her own investigative journalism to uncover injustices that hurt Black Americans. She traveled around the world to share stories of these injustices in hopes of creating political pressure for change. What does Wells say about the difference between what the laws say and what actually happens in the South? According to Wells, was Reconstruction successful?

Ida B. Wells was an extremely influential journalist and civil rights activist. She tackled the difficult topics of racism and lawlessness — specifically the widespread Southern practice of lynching. Throughout the South and in some other parts of the country, thousands of Black Americans (especially men) faced extrajudicial lynching by white Americans between the 1880s and 1960s. Wells argued that in order for change to occur, the world would need to know that in most cases the “Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning.” When she realized that no one else was investigating the often fraudulent charges that led to lynching, she set out to report in her newspapers and elsewhere the facts she uncovered in the cases. One measure of Reconstruction’s failure was that more than 4,000 Black Americans lost their lives to lynch mobs. Wells noted in this piece that 1876 marked an important closure on the federal Reconstruction effort. Reconstruction ended not because the federal government achieved its goals, but because a significant proportion of the white population resisted the idea of racial equality, or at least gave up on the idea that the federal government should seek to protect civil rights.

“I am glad,” she said, “that the colored people of the land are beginning to appreciate the gravity of the situation. As was said long ago, and it is also true of our race, hereditary bondsmen must strike the first blow for freedom themselves. It is constantly being thrown in the negro’s face that he was set at liberty by white men. But is the negro free to-day? No, he is not. The outside world thinks that with Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation and Congress’s three amendments to that measure the colored people were made as free as their white brethren. But this is not so. For thirty years this has not been so in the South, although every effort to remedy things has been made.

“Deputations have waited on the President, petitions have been signed by thousands, but nothing, absolutely nothing, has been done. The whole country knows that since 1876 the negro vote in the South has been nullified, and that one white vote there is equal to three colored ones.

“A false delicacy in the North and West has prevented anything being done to stop the outrages in the South. Those who years ago were our friends have turned a deaf ear to our petitions, and have told us to go back to the South if we wanted justice. The Southern people have also given the rest of this great country to understand that they would attend to their own affairs. In fact they have demanded the right to administer their own justice, and they have obtained it.

“It remains to be seen if we are to be so left for the rest of time.”