The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s why Google Doodle salutes fearless, peerless word-warrior Ida B. Wells

(Courtesy of GOOGLE 2015)

A SEAT, once denied, is no longer just a seat.

When you’ve been refused a fair place on the train, you’ve also been denied your rightful station in life.

And once you’ve been told and scolded that you cannot sit where someone of another race or sex or class can squat, you have been refused a seat at the table of social equality.

That’s why when Ms. Ida B. Wells boarded a Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad car in the early 1880s and took her rightful place in the ladies’ section, she would not budge when she was told to relocate herself because of her race. She would have been surrendering not simply her seat; she would have been abdicating her deeply held dignity as a person of worth.

Ms. Wells would not be put out by one man, whose hand she bit with teeth cut on the education of self-belief, and so it took three men to ignorantly put her off that train. She sued and won, but then lost because state high courts can still be woefully wrong. The price of injustice on that Tennessee train was $200 out of Ida B. Wells’s pocket, but that was also the value of preserving her self-worth.

And so when Ms. Wells sat before President McKinley a decade and a half later to speak about a black postmaster’s murder in South Carolina that also symbolized all the many thousands of lynchings that were poisoning the soul of the South and the nation, she was not just sitting in the White House. With her Illinois delegation, she was also assuming her fair seat at the table of justice.

Because the most striking takeaway from the whole awe-inspiring life of Ms. Ida B. Wells-Barnett lies in what she refused to let be taken away.

Time and again, life stole from her, and time and again, she refused to unclutch her civil rights, as well as her rightful dignity.

Today, Google honors Ida B. Wells — a predecessor to Rosa Parks, and friend and sister in arms to Susan B. Anthony — on the 153rd anniversary of her pre-Emancipation Proclamation birth in Holly Springs, Miss., to slave parents turned educators.

Google often honors people of note for historic achievement in a field of study. But Ms. Wells kept having to find new fields to shine in and believe in after each one previous was taken or undercut by tragedy or violence or other cruel circumstance.

And Google could practically honor Ms. Wells as a “life scientist” because, throughout her life, she had the uncanny ability to take huge losses and convert them to fuel for change.

When her parents and a sibling died of yellow fever, 16-year-old Ida became a teacher herself to support her family.

When she ultimately lost her Tennessee railroad case, she saw the flaws in the law, especially in the lack of protections for African Americans after Reconstruction, and so she became a warrior of the word, finding light not in jurisprudence but rather journalism.

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” — Ida B. Wells

When Ms. Wells discovered that a friend, Tom Moss, and his two co-owners of a popular Memphis grocery were lynched by a white mob — the violent result of the threatening commercial success of African Americans — she began her anti-lynching crusade.

“The mob spirit has grown with the increasing intelligence of the Afro-American.” — Wells

And when the truthful fire of Ms. Wells’s journalistic words in Tennessee sparked destruction of her printing press and death threats, she stayed North, in New York and then Chicago, where she could be heard and published and elevated — growing in her central roles as author and orator and activist — to fight for suffrage and desegregation and anti-lynching laws.

“One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a a trap.” — Wells

Ms. Wells was so much a woman propelled by social change that she co-founded the NAACP, yet cut ties when the group proved to be not action-oriented enough for her sense of urgent mission.

“Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than the sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.” — Wells

Google can honor Rosa Parks and W.E.B. Du Bois and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Nellie Bly and so many other deserving historic figures. But by celebrating Ms. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, today’s Doodle (by Matt Cruickshank) honors all such icons.

In her noble seat of power, Ms. Wells contains multitudes of historic accomplishment.

And because she would not be moved, she moves us still to this day.


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