Reviewed by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore
Sunday, April 13, 2008
A Sword Among Lions
By Paula J. Giddings
Amistad. 800 pp. $35
Ida B. Wells was in England in 1894 when she heard that white Southerners had put a black woman in San Antonio, Tex., into a barrel with "nails driven through the sides and then rolled [it] down a hill until she was dead." The 31-year-old Wells, a black Southerner, was seasoned to the widespread phenomenon of mob torture and murder that went by the shorthand "lynching"; in fact, she was abroad on a speaking tour denouncing it. Nonetheless, she shed tears over the latest "outrage upon my people."
Her call to speak out against lynching had come just two years earlier, when a Memphis mob murdered her close friend and neighbor Thomas Moss. The incident started as a dispute among white and black boys playing marbles, but it quickly evolved into an excuse to murder Moss, a successful businessman who was drawing patrons away from a nearby white grocer.
White Southerners explained to Northerners that they lynched only when they had to: when black men threatened, assaulted and raped white women. Wells was determined to expose that lie. As the murders of the woman in the barrel and Thomas Moss attest, white Southerners also killed black women and economically threatening black men. And even when the mobs tore apart a black man who had been found with a white woman, it wasn't always rape. Sometimes, Wells declared in print, the man was not "a despoiler of virtue," but had succumbed "to the smiles of white women." Her editorial in Free Speech, the black weekly she co-owned in Memphis, led white residents to destroy the newspaper's office and threaten to kill her. But even after she was forced into exile from the South, she continued to proclaim -- as a banner headline over one of her articles in a New York paper declared in 1892 -- "The Truth About Lynching."
For speaking plainly about rape, sex and murder, Wells lost her home and her livelihood. For the rest of her life, she had to defend her reputation against both white and black people who called her a "negro adventuress" and "Notorious Courtesan." A black newspaper editor suggested that the public should "muzzle" that "animal from Memphis," and the New York Times dubbed her "a slanderous and dirty-minded mulatress."
Wells was an orphan and a poor, single woman who supported her younger brothers and sisters through teaching and journalism. She recognized that "my good name was all that I had in the world," yet she would not be silenced. Wells used words to fight white Southern lynch mobs, an indifferent white Northern public and, sometimes, black critics who felt that her outspokenness undermined their agenda. Southern white supremacy was cruel and crazy, and she was the rare person who could see beyond the cultural insanity in which she was immersed. For that she paid dearly.
Paula J. Giddings tells several larger stories as she narrates Wells's life. Foremost among these interventions is a history of lynching and opposition to it. She spares no details as she tracks the development of spectacle lynchings at the turn of the century, when lynching became a premeditated act, hundreds of people converged on the scene, and the mob sometimes tortured the victim all day before killing him or her in the evening.
In exploring Wells's early life -- she was born to enslaved parents in 1862 in Holly Springs, Miss. -- Giddings also paints a rich portrait of black life during Reconstruction. She movingly recounts dashed African American hopes in Tennessee in the 1880s and '90s as white Southerners tightened segregation. Wells, for one, refused to accept it. When told to move to a blacks-only train car, she refused, bit the conductor as he threw her off the train, filed suit against the railroad and won $500 in damages.
Finally, Ida becomes a national history as Giddings skillfully recounts the great migration of Southern African Americans to Northern cities in the first decades of the 20th century. Wells moved from Memphis to New York to Chicago, where she married attorney Ferdinand Lee Barnett Jr. in 1895. There she confronted a new set of problems as a social worker and neighborhood organizer, but she also gained a modicum of power through local politics and women's suffrage. Giddings describes the tensions within the black women's club movement, which fought locally and nationally to ameliorate Jim Crow, and excels in portraying the sexism of black male civil rights activists and their white allies.
Despite a long and influential career in journalism, social work and politics, Wells has not received the recognition she deserves. She left an unfinished autobiography, and other authors have dealt with her activism in various contexts. Giddings set out to write a definitive biography and has succeeded spectacularly. Ida gradually brings us to see the world through Wells's eyes; as she shops for a new seersucker suit that we know she can't afford or feels betrayed when fellow activists try to leave her off the list of founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, we come to love this brave and wise woman.
Read it and weep. Then give it to the last person who told you that ideals are a waste of time. ·
Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore is professor of history at Yale and the author, most recently, of "Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950."