A crusader for justice, a defender of democracy, a militant and an uncompromising leader are just some of the characteristics used to describe her in the past. However, the search for the right words to describe Ida B. Wells-Barnett needs to be done with caution, for one runs the risk of dramatically understating how much of an impact she had on race and gender relations within the United States. Dedicating her life to ending horrible injustices against African-Americans, she traveled the country, speaking and writing about civil rights issues, unfair laws, and crimes against blacks. As more and more civil rights laws were ignored by society in the late 1800s, she became increasingly involved in politics to stop the trend of social injustice. Ida B. Wells was especially instrumental in the fight against lynching, proving that these acts were essentially murders of innocent black men, women, and children, and boldly demanded that their white murderers be held responsible for their crimes. This paper will discuss the events of her life that helped shape her strong leadership qualities, what inspired her to eradicate the practice of lynching from the Post-Reconstruction South, and how she specifically structured her anti-lynching campaign as well as some successes and accomplishments she achieved.
Wells’ responsible and heroic nature was present early on in her life. When she was sixteen, she lost both of her parents to a yellow fever epidemic (Hine and Thompson, p. 194). She immediately opted to becoming a parental figure to her five younger brothers and sisters, taking a job as a teacher to support them (McMurry, p. 16). She moved to Memphis in early 1883 on her own and began teaching at various schools within the area. Her large amounts of freedom, coupled with the lack of a male role in her life, were the main contributors to her refusal to neither accept nor reject the gender roles common at that time (McMurry, p. 53).
Memphis is also the first location where signs of political activism are first apparent. In September 1883, she was asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her first-class seat on the train and ordered her into the smoking or "Jim Crow" car, which was already crowded with other passengers (McMurry, p. 25). She refused to leave, going so far as “brac[ing] her feet against the seat in front of her and [biting]…into his hand” (McMurry, p. 26). After being forcibly removed from the car, she sued the railroad, challenging the company’s lack of ability to offer her “separate but equal” first-class rail cars and was subsequently awarded $500 (Hine and Thompson, p. 194). However, the railroad appealed the verdict and in 1887, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision (McMurry, p. 27). Nonetheless, Wells’ lawsuit generated enough popularity to merit her writing an article about her experiences, published in The Living Way, a black church weekly newsletter.
Her article was so well received that the editor of The Living Way asked for additional contributions. As a result, Wells began a weekly column, writing under the penname, "Iola" (Hine and Thompson, p. 195). By 1886, Wells' articles were appearing in prominent black newspapers across the nation (Schechter, p. 24). She ventured throughout the Southern United States, startling herself with the decrepit, ramshackle living conditions living conditions of blacks. As she saw more and more, her voice grew bolder and she began to attacking the larger issues of discrimination and inequality, such as poverty and lack of educational opportunities (Schechter, p. 28). In 1889 Wells was offered an editorship of a small Memphis newspaper called Free Speech and Headlight and became part-owner (Hine and Thompson, p. 195). Wells' flaming editorials condemned white establishments for their continual oppression of blacks. In 1891 she was fired from her teaching position because of...