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Ida B. Wells called for anti-lynching legislation more than a century ago. Now it’s finally law.

“There’s no successes around anti-lynching that we could point to where we don’t see Ida B. Wells’ imprint,” said author and Yale professor Crystal Feimster.
Ida B. Wells
Journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett.Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

In March 1898, the journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett was the sole woman among eight congressmen who made a visit to the White House. 

They came to implore President William McKinley to punish the killers of Frazier Baker. South Carolina’s new postmaster, who was the first Black person to hold the position, and his daughter Julia, had been shot to death by members of a white mob a month earlier. 

McKinley ordered that the Justice Department conduct a formal investigation into Frazier’s killing. A year later, an all-white male jury remained deadlocked on the verdict, and the judge declared a mistrial. 

That same year, Wells-Barnett unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to pass a national anti-lynching law introduced by Illinois congressman William Lorimer. Wells-Barnett’s efforts did not stop with that Congress, nor McKinley.Her anti-lynching campaign spanned the next several years, and included in-depth investigations on lynching and a speaking tour in the U.K. where she raised awareness of its prevalence in the U.S.

Last month, 124 years after Wells-Barnett visited the White House and after nearly 200 attempts by Congress to pass a federal anti-lynching law over the course of the 20th century, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law, making the act a federal hate crime. The new law carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison for anyone who conspires to commit an act of lynching — defined as the public killing of an individual without due process, according to the NAACP — that results in serious injury or death. 

Scholars say the bill’s passage would not have been possible without Wells-Barnett’s decades-long crusade against lynching, in which she helped the world to see it as a tool of racist oppression.

“There’s no successes around anti-lynching that we could point to where we don’t see Ida B. Wells’ imprint,” said Crystal Feimster, associate professor in the departments of African American studies and history at Yale University, and the author of “Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching.” 

The first time Wells-Barnett wrote about lynching as a journalist was in an 1886 editorial for a Black newspaper in Missouri following the lynching of Eliza Woods, a domestic worker who had been accused of poisoning her employer. Woods was hung from a tree and shot by a mob in Jackson, Tennessee, according to Paula Giddings, author of “Ida: A Sword Among Lions.” The husband of the dead woman later confessed to killing her, exonerating Woods, according to Giddings.

“This was another catalyzing event for her because there was no accountability and no one tried to protect” Woods, said Giddings, who is also professor emerita of Africana studies at Smith College. 

“That was a moment for her that I think spoke to her kind of personally as a Black woman,” added Feimster, whose research shows that at least 130 Black women were murdered by lynch mobs from 1880 to 1930. 

Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, speaks after President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act in the Rose Garden of the White House on March 29.
Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, speaks after President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act in the Rose Garden of the White House on March 29.Patrick Semansky / AP file

By the time of her 1898 White House visit, Wells-Barnett’s reporting had exposed the horrors of lynching for years — including through her 1892 investigation, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” and her 1895 follow-up, “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States.” 

More than 4,300 Black people were lynched throughout the U.S. between 1870 and 1950, according to a 2015 report by the Equal Justice Initiative. Countless others lived in fear of the threat of lynchings, enforced by vigilantes, especially across the Southern states. 

It was six years after the lynching of Woods that Wells-Barnett began her anti-lynching campaign in earnest, following the March 1892 Memphis lynchings of three Black men — Wells-Barnett’s friend Thomas Moss and his business partners, Henry Stewart and Calvin McDowell — by a white mob angry about the success of Moss’ grocery store. That incident marked a turning point for Wells, who wrote in her autobiography, “Crusade for Justice,” that she had originally believed the so-called explanations for lynchings propagated by the white press, which argued that many Black men were being lynched for raping white women — a falsehood that Wells-Barnett exposed in her journalism. 

“The narrative at that time in the white-owned newspapers was that this person was a menace to society, so for her it really was the lynching of her friends that completely changed her life, because she knew they were not guilty of any crime, so it propelled her to wonder how many people were similarly falsely accused,” said Michelle Duster, Wells-Barnett’s great-granddaughter and the author of two books about her.

Those murders motivated Wells-Barnett to investigate lynchings across the South, published in her books, to show how the white press justified lynchings and reported unreliable accounts of them. She also gathered statistics on lynchings and highlighted individual cases to expose false accusations and a lack of evidence that often undergirded them. 

“The Afro-American is not a bestial race,” she wrote in “Southern Horrors.” “If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service.”

Key to Wells-Barnett’s influence was combining this tactic of humanizing victims with unearthing the grisly details of their killings, including speaking with the victims’ families and visiting the sites of the lynchings, offering the public truths that the white press obscured. 

“She was exposing brutal realities that countered what they had heard previously, and she was talking about it in graphic detail with specific names and places and the excuses that were being used,” Duster said.

Image: President Biden Signs Emmett Till Antilynching Act Into Law
President Joe Biden delivers remarks alongside Vice President Kamala Harris and Michelle Duster after he signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act in the Rose Garden of the White House on March 29.Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images file

Wells-Barnett also sought to expose how lynching functioned as a form of both sexist and racist violence, by highlighting how Black men were often being falsely accused of raping white women, while sexual violence perpetrated by white men against Black women was going largely unrecognized, Feimster said.

“She understood the dynamic between rape and lynching and how both of those practices function to terrorize the Black community,” said Feimster.

While it’s difficult to determine the size of Wells-Barnett’s readership at the time, according to Giddings, she was widely seen as “the leading woman journalist” at the turn of the 20th century — in part because she wasn’t writing about the same topics many other female journalists were. 

“There were women writing during this period, but they were writing about ‘women’s things,’” Giddings said. “Ida was one of the few who was kind of transgressive around gender.” 

But doing so came with a cost: Male journalists mocked her, according to Giddings, and The New York Times famously called her a “slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress” in 1894. 

Wells-Barnett’s work nonetheless had an impact, which included a reduction in the number of documented lynchings in the South throughout the 1890s. 

And “she was one of the people who kind of embarrassed the South into passing” local anti-lynching laws, Giddings added.

Wells-Barnett’s anti-lynching campaign also took her to England in the mid-1890s, where her speeches inspired the formation of the London Anti-Lynching Committee, which was followed by other chapters throughout England and the U.S.

She continued her anti-lynching campaign for years to come. At a 1909 meeting of the National Negro Conference, she gave a speech in which she again called for federal anti-lynching legislation as well as “a bureau for the investigation and publication of the details of every lynching.” 

In 1922, the House of Representatives passed an anti-lynching bill known as the Dyer Bill — named after congressman Leonidas Dyer of Missouri, who introduced it in 1918 — but its passage was stymied by a filibuster in the Senate.

At the White House, as she stood between President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Duster quoted a speech her great-grandmother gave in 1900: “Our country’s national crime is lynching.” But only now, more than 120 years later, are those words true under the law.

That fact wasn’t lost on Duster: “Being there, I was like, ‘wow, it finally happened,’” she said.

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