By Cornel West
Suffragette. Civil rights activist. Anti-lynching advocate. And as Dr. Cornel West would call her, prophetic journalist. Happy birthday to Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who more than deserves the posthumous Pulitzer Prize honor “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching”! The era of lynching is still with us. Today we call it policing. Imagine if she were alive, covering our modern-day lynch mobs that took the lives of Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, and many others. These highlights from Dr. West’s Black Prophetic Fire remind us, on her birthday, why she will always be important figure of the Black radical tradition and resistance.
Ida B. Wells is not only unique, but she is the exemplary figure full of prophetic fire in the face of American terrorism, which is American Jim Crow and Jane Crow, when lynching occurred every two and a half days for over fifty years in America. And this is very important, because Black people in the New World, in the Diaspora, Brazil, Jamaica, Barbados, were all enslaved, but no group of Black people were Jim Crowed other than US Negroes. And what I mean by Jim Crow is not just terrorized, not just stigmatized, not just traumatized, but, what we talked about before, niggerized. Black people were first reaching citizenship after the most barbaric of all civil wars in modern times—750,000 dead, we are told now. Black people are made slaves, then citizens, then are remade into subjects who are subjected to an American terrorist order—despite Black resistance. They are no longer slaves in the old sense, yet not citizens, but sub-citizens, namely subjects, namely Negroes, namely niggers who are wrestling with this terror.
Why is this important? Because, I would argue, Jim Crow in some ways is as important as slavery in understanding the mentality, understanding the institutions, and understanding the destiny of Black folk. A lot of people want to jump from slavery into the civil rights movement. But, no, right when the American social order was providing opportunities for white immigrants all around the world between 1881—Let’s begin with the pogroms that escalate in Russia at the time with the death of the tsar2 and the waves of white immigrants who come to the United States and who begin to gain access to some of the opportunities afforded here—that is precisely the time in which Jim Crow emerged. It consolidates in the 1890s, along with the American imperial order in the Philippines and Cuba, Guam, and other territories. So you get six million people of color outside the United States, and you get the terrorized, traumatized, stigmatized order, which is a Jim Crow order, in the United States. That’s the context for Ida.
Why is she so unique? Well, the textbook version of Black history is the following. You get W. E. B. Du Bois versus Booker T. Washington: The nice little deodorized discourse of Booker T., who is tied to the white elites, who has access to tremendous amounts of money, who has his own political machine, moving in to take over Black newspapers and pulling Black civic organizations under his control while refusing to say a mumbling word publicly about lynching, which was the raw face of American terrorism against Black people. Then you get Du Bois, who did want to talk about civil rights, who did want to talk about political rights, but in no way targeted the lynching face of American terrorism the way Ida B. Wells did. Ida B. Wells, in so many ways, teaches us something that we rarely want to acknowledge: that the Black freedom movement has always been an anti-terrorist movement, that Black people in America had a choice between creating a Black al-Qaeda or a movement like Ida B. Wells’s, which was going to call into question the bestiality and barbarity and brutality of Jim Crow and American terrorism and lynching, but would do it in the name of something that provided a higher moral ground and a higher spiritual ground given her Christian faith, not opting for a Black al-Qaeda that says, “You terrorize us; we terrorize you. You kill our children; we kill your children.” No, not an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, where we end up both blind and toothless. She said: “We want a higher moral ground, but I’m going to hit this issue head-on.”
And that is in so many ways relevant today, because we live in an age in which people are talking about terrorism, about terror, all the time. Here we have much to learn from an Ida B. Wells, who was born a slave, orphaned young—both her parents die of yellow fever in Hollis Springs, Mississippi. She makes her way with two of her sisters to Memphis, is run out of Memphis, even as she begins to emerge as a prophetic voice in Free Speech and Headlight, a newspaper that she begins to edit, and then with the lynching of three men in Memphis, brother Tom and brother Calvin and brother Will, on March 9, 1892, the white elite puts a bounty on her head, because she wants to tell the truth—like Malcolm X, parrhesia again, the fearless speech. Thank God for T. Thomas Fortune, who welcomed her to New York and invited her to write for his newspaper, the New York Age. And this was where she published the two classics, Southern Horrors, in 1892, and A Red Record, in 1895.
And it is important to use the language of American terrorism, because we live in an age where, when people think of terrorism, they usually think of a very small group of Islamic brothers and sisters, whereas, of course, terrorism has been integral to the emergence and the sustenance of the American democratic experiment, beginning with indigenous peoples and slavery. But after the Civil War, we get a new form of terrorism—crimes against humanity—that sits at the center of American life, and Ida B. Wells forces us to come to terms with that.
As a journalist, she had a vocation to tell the truth at an observational level. It reminds me in some ways of the great text of Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimké, American Slavery As It Is, which became a best seller in 1839. And it was observational; it was like William Cobbett in England or Harriet Martineau, where you observe and picture for your audience in a dramatic fashion the suffering and the misery of your fellow human beings, in this case of Blacks vis-à-vis a white audience. What Ida B. Wells does as a journalist is not just report in a regular way, but she presents these dramatic portraits with statistics, with empirical data, but also stories. Ida was saying: “Let me tell you about these seventeen lynchings, where the myth was to protect white womanhood’s purity and so forth. No, there was a fear of economic competition. No, there was a sense of arbitrary targeting of these Black men that had nothing to do whatsoever with white sisters.” My God, journalism is about dead in America today, given that most journalists are extensions of the powers that be, but in those days there was prophetic witness, and Ida B. Wells was one of the great pioneers of this prophetic journalism.
About the Author
Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He graduated magnum cum laude from Harvard and obtained his MA and PhD in philosophy at Princeton. He has taught at Union Theological Seminary (where he has recently returned to teach), Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Paris. He has written nineteen books and edited thirteen books. He is best known for his classic Race Matters, published by Beacon Press in 1993. His latest books are Black Prophetic Fire, which offers a fresh perspective on six revolutionary African American leaders (Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X, and Ida B. Wells) and The Radical King, a collection of MLK's writings curated and introduced by Prof. West to reclaim Dr. King's prophetic and radical vision as both a civil rights leader and—more broadly—as a human right activist. Both books were published by Beacon Press. Follow him on Twitter at @.