Ida B Wells
History often shows that moments of great victory stood upon the shoulders of people who came before. Nowhere else is this more true than the heroism of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. 72 years before Rosa Parks changed the South forever, in 1883 Ida Wells also refused to give up her seat when the conductor ordered her to move for a white man from the coach of a train. She was 21 years old. Miss Wells filed a lawsuit in Tennessee court against the railroad company: they were in violation of the 1875 Civil Rights Act which banned discrimination at that time. This was the brief era before segregation laws were enacted and blessed by the US Supreme Court.
Ida Wells was a writer of striking courage. Twenty years before Monroe Work published his national counts, she was the first person to dare to report on lynching. In 1889 she became joint-owner of a newspaper in Memphis writing against segregation: the Free Speech and Headlight. A few years later, three of her friends were lynched in a public spectacle in Memphis. She was devastated, but she raised $500 to investigate lynchings like this one. While investigating, she would often risk extreme danger by going directly to the site of a killing. In 1895 she published her report The Red Record, with her statistics about what accusations were used most often. It turned out lynchings were hardly ever about the crime of rape, as the Southern myth pretended. In response to her articles, a mob ransacked her office and threatened to kill her too.
She was forced to move to Chicago where she continued to write about lynchings. Mrs. Wells became a forceful speaker who gave lectures across the US and Great Britain, attempting to bring awareness to other powerful white allies against American racism. She was one of two African American women to sign the call to form the NAACP in 1909. She never stopped fighting, many years after that.
Wing Hing v. Eureka
The racism against Chinese Americans in Eureka, CA reached a boiling point in Feb 1885 when a town hall meeting of white citizens brazenly proposed a resolution to massacre "every Chinaman" in town. The resolution failed to pass a vote, because instead they decided they could destroy the Chinatown section to exile its 309 residents from the city. That day a white mob erected a gallows with a sign: "Any Chinaman seen on the street after 3:00 will be hanged." The people were marched violently to ships and trains at port.
One year later, 55 victims filed the lawsuit Wing Hing v. the City of Eureka, the first reparations lawsuit in US history: seeking $132,000 in damages. The Chinese community lost the suit because the law said they were not the owners of the land and their property was "probably worthless." But in the mere act of bringing a case, these Chinese American exiles sounded a protest across California against similar treatment everywhere.
Jovita Idár was the eldest daughter in a family of journalists in Laredo, Texas. She worked for her father’s newspaper La Crónica, writing articles that condemned racism and the lynching of Hispanics. A brutal lynching of a 14-year-old boy in 1911 prompted 400 leaders to a First Mexican Congress in Laredo to organize against injustices and establish a civil rights organization. This was the birth of La Grán Liga Mexicanista de Beneficiencia y Protección. Miss Idár organized the women who attended, which led to the League of Mexican Women.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 incited fear and tension in South Texas. Jovita Idár and her friend Leonor crossed the border into Mexico in order to nurse the injured. In 1913-14 she worked for the newspaper El Progreso and published an editorial criticizing President Wilson for sending troops at the border. Incensed by the article, Texas Rangers arrived to destroy the print shop. Miss Idár, alone, faced them squarely in the doorway and stopped them from coming inside. They would return a future night to demolish the paper. After her father's death in 1914, she continued to run La Crónica.
James Weldon Johnson
As early as 1895, James Weldon Johnson founded a political newspaper in Atlanta and later edited for the New York Age. Beginning in 1916, he became the Secretary of the NAACP, the organization's leader. He fought against racial violence through lectures and peaceful demonstrations. He termed the violence in 1919 as the "Red Summer" when riots and lynchings reached a climax in places like Chicago, Texas, Washington DC, and Elaine, Arkansas.
In 1918, Johnson recruited Walter White to join the NAACP and worked closely with him on the lynching campaigns. Johnson spent much time in Washington, lobbying Congress to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. In his expansive career as a journalist, diplomat, teacher and composer, Johnson also published ground-breaking anthologies: The Book of American Negro Poetry and The Book of American Negro Spirituals. During the 1920s he was one of the major inspirations for the Harlem Renaissance.
Mary Burnett Talbert was a natural educator: she taught in Little Rock, Arkansas and was principal at a high school there. She moved to Buffalo, NY with her husband, where she founded an affiliate to the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. It was in her home that 30 activists met in 1905 to begin the Niagara Movement, which was the forerunner of the NAACP. Ever a leader, she was president of the Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs, president of the National Association of Colored Women, and headed the NAACP's Anti-Lynching Committee. She traveled all over the country to gain support for passage of the Dyer bill. In 1922 she personally wrote some 1,850 letters as an Anti-Lynching Crusader to ask for donations from "A Million Women United to Stop Lynching."
Mrs. Talbert believed in reform and the place of women like her to achieve it: "The great desire of our nation to produce the most perfect form of government, shows incontestable proofs of advance." It was her model of a women's crusade that would inform and inspire Jessie Ames eight years later.
Walter F. White was born in Atlanta with blond, blue-eyed looks that belied his African American ancestry. Yet he lived through race riots in Atlanta and saw his family's home nearly burned to the ground as "too good for a nigger family." After college he organized the Atlanta branch of the NAACP and was then invited to the national office in 1918. For the next ten years, White's primary responsibility was undercover investigations of lynchings and race riots. Using his fair complexion to his advantage, he approached members of lynch mobs as a reporter and got them to relate candid accounts of the executions. He later wrote the gut-wrenching novel Fire in the Flint.
During these years White investigated 41 lynchings and 8 race riots. One of his most extraordinary achievements was his investigation of the Elaine massacre in 1919, in which hundreds of black victims were hunted down. Yet after the massacre, the only people tried for murder were black men accused of killing whites. The NAACP had to press the case Moore v. Dempsey at the US Supreme Court to challenge the injustice of their trials which lasted only minutes.
More than once, Mr. White narrowly escaped vigilantes who discovered his true identity. His book Rope and Faggot is still considered an authoritative analysis of lynching. He became head of the NAACP in 1929.
Leonidas C. Dyer was a Republican Representative from Missouri in the US Congress from 1911 to 1933. Dyer was white, and he was outraged by the unrelenting high rate of lynchings of black people in the South. As a member of the party of Abraham Lincoln and a man of principles for the values of the law, he could not believe the mobs' blatant disregard for law by taking executions into their own hands. In 1918 he introduced the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill which would have made lynching a federal felony. This would have enabled the US government to prosecute these crimes, since the states never seemed to pursue murder charges for anyone in the mob.... the local courts always claimed that nothing could be done to track them down.
Mr. Dyer introduced his bill many times, and it passed in the House of Representatives in 1922. However it was bitterly defeated by a Southern filibuster in the Senate. Mr. Dyer vowed that "We have just begun to fight" and tried twice more to win victory in the Senate. Still, it never did. He served in Congress until he lost reelection in 1932.
Jessie Daniel Ames
Jessie Daniel Ames was a Texas suffragist and anti-racism reformer who fought against lynching in the South. As a white woman, she spoke out bravely against the arguments that lynchings were "chivalrous" acts to protect the virtue of people like her, or that white women even needed protection from African-American men.
During the 1920s she was the director of the Texas branch and then the Atlanta headquarters of the Women's Committee, a part of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC). In 1930 Ames founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, which obtained Pledge signatures by over 40,000 women as well as local law enforcement and politicians. One important hallmark of Ames's educational campaign was her compilation of statistics from her own research of 204 lynchings: despite the popular pretext, only 29% of the victims were even accused of crimes against white women.
ATTRIBUTIONS ON THIS PAGE:
Photo of Jovita Idár © 2011 is licensed from Andrew Butler Photos; All rights reserved.
Photo of Chinatown shopkeeper by Isaiah West Taber, The Bancroft Library.
Photo of James W. Johnson from the James Weldon Johnson and Grace Nail Johnson papers, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society claims copyright to the photo of Mary Talbert, although copyright belongs to the photographer prior to 1915.
Photo of Jessie Ames is from Austin History Center.
Other photos are in the public domain. Note that each photo has been retouched from the original for artistic effect.