I cannot recommend this book on anti-lynching.
In the original writings in The Light of Truth, Ida B. Wells aims to stop lynching by showing the facts. At the time, white America claimed lynching was a terrible but understandable reaction to Black men raping white women. It wasn’t. White Americans lynched Black Americans to enforce the social order. If Black folk stepped out of line, they would be made an example of. In the case of the death of Wells’ friends that triggered her crusade, the victims’ grocery was competing with the white folks grocery, and winning. In these collected editorials, Wells investigates the charges made in lynchings throughout the South and refutes the myth of unplanned, white outrage.
Then she does it again.
The facts are terrible. During Wells’ life—and beyond—white Americans made a spectacle of kidnapping Black folks and gruesomely killing them. Hoards of white people attacked, tortured, maimed, and murdered Black Americans while spectators cheered. I knew all that going into the book. I clearly remember my shock at the Civil Rights Museum when I realized there had to be a crusade against lynching; people had to be convinced lynching was a bad thing. But the sheer repetition of the facts in these editorials finally broke me down.
The White Press
Then there was Ms. Wells heartbreak at the gross injustice the white press was doing to her entire Black race. She names—and demands retraction of—the press’s systemic portrayal of Black men as fiends.
Again, I knew she was a journalist. She had her own press. I did not realize how totally she was having to take on the entire media apparatus of her time.
And don’t think the white press didn’t fight back. When Wells went to England to enlist the Brits’ aid in fighting lynching, the New York Times ran editorials condemning her. The Memphis newspaper paid to send a faux “Black leader” to England to counter her claims. She was fighting lynching; the white press was fighting for the right to continue to lynching. In America.
1927 Flood and Shame of the Percys
At the end of the book, Wells examines the 1927 Flood. She describes the phenomenon I wrote about in my short story “Held at Gunpoint.” White Mississippians held Black Mississippians on the levee at gunpoint to keep them from leaving and escaping the South’s peonage. Again, I obviously knew this. But Wells tells it in a way that sears it into you.
She investigates. She interviews those re-enslaved; she examines the scars of a man shot for trying to leave. If you’ve romanticized William Alexander Percy and Lanterns on the Levee, her complaint that “nowhere does he tell whether the Red Cross has removed the W. A. Percys” will chill you. A survivor described Percy’s Greenville as “the gridiron of hell” (I may have to do an entire blog post about Percy’s lethal racism). Yet when Wells complains about the government slave camps forcing Black Americans to work on the levees at gunpoint, Secretary Herbert Hoover calls her a liar.
I thought Congress’s historic failure to enact an anti-lynching bill was because white America didn’t want to admit how bad lynching had been. I was wrong. For generations, white America didn’t enact an anti-lynching bill because they were pro-lynching. They wanted to keep lynching in their bag of social control tricks. It puts me in mind of white Americans today who believe they have the right to confront and kill Black folks in their own neighborhoods, the American justice system be damned.
In her writings, Wells made clear whites would keep on lynching as long as they had the political power to do so. The North gave whites that power when it abandoned Blacks during Reconstruction. The United States Supreme Court cemented that power by gutting the early Civil Rights bills. And Booker T. Washington’s myth that economic improvement would halt the lynching fed that power. Wells rightly believed that only when Blacks could vote to remove from office those who allowed lynching—the sheriffs, mayors, and governors—would lynching stop. Just guessing, but I bet Wells wouldn’t like today’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act.
For years, I’ve admired Wells for being both an advocate for racial equality and gender equality. She fought whites from denigrating her because she was Black and fought Black men from marginalizing her because she was female. But until I read her own words, I had no idea how much of a battle she was in.
I don’t think she would consider the fight over. She saw the rationale for violence against Black Americans morph but not go away. First, violence was justified post-Reconstruction to keep Blacks in their place. Then to keep Blacks from voting. Then to keep Black men from raping white women. That was all just in her lifetime. Where, I wonder, would Ida B. Wells say we are on anti-lynching today?
Again, I advise: don’t read The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lunching Crusader if you want to keep questions like these out of your head.