Given that the past half-century of police reforms have yielded such miserable results, it is time to reimagine the problem as one not of police but of extralegal killings of black Americans. In other words, as the problem of lynching.
As historian Isabel Wilkerson and several other scholars have pointed out, these killings represent the continuation of lynching culture in the United States. Today, black Americans die at the hands of police at a rate that is almost equivalent to the number of documented lynchings during the early 20th century.
And there was a solution for lynching — one mapped out more than a hundred years ago by Ida B. Wells. During the late 19th century, Wells (later Wells-Barnett), a civil rights activist and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), called for the immediate implementation of federal policies that would protect Black lives from lynching — one of the most critical domestic challenges of her time. Her recommendations provide one significant blueprint for eliminating police violence in the United States.
Wells, who had been challenging Jim Crow laws since relocating from Mississippi to Tennessee in the early 1880s, turned her attention to the issue of racial violence after three of her friends — business owners Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Henry Stewart — were lynched in Memphis in 1892. Their deaths were representative of the pattern of white mob violence that targeted black men and women across the South.
In 1909, Wells delivered a passionate speech at the NAACP’s first annual conference in Atlanta in which she denounced lynching and laid out a plan for how to secure its end. First, she acknowledged three “salient facts” about lynching that are equally relevant concerning police violence today: 1) racial prejudice is at the heart of these acts of violence; 2) criminality is “the excuse” we use to justify these acts but they are certainly not the cause; and 3) “it is a national crime and requires a national remedy.”
Presenting statistical lynching data based on her own meticulous research, Wells debunked claims that black men were being lynched in droves because they were guilty of committing crimes — including the alleged sexual assault of white women. In reality, Wells argued, lynching was a tool of white supremacy to prevent the social advancement of black people in the aftermath of slavery. “Truth is mighty,” she pointed out, “[and] the lynching record discloses the hypocrisy of the lyncher as well as his crime.” Reminiscent of Wells’s collection of data on lynching, efforts are now underway to catalogue and publicize police shootings — revealing that these incidents are far too common and often go unreported.
Though Ida B. Wells acknowledged that many activists of her time had explored strategies to combat lynching, including political agitation, mass protests and respectability politics, she emphasized the need for one crucial response: federal protection of black citizens of the United States. Even in cases where white vigilantes were arrested and charged with lynching at the local level, Wells pointed out how easily they were acquitted by a jury of their peers. Federal legislation, therefore, would protect black citizens against violations by the state. “The strong arm of the government,” she passionately argued, “must reach across state lines whenever unbridled lawlessness defies state laws and must give to the individual citizen under the Stars and Stripes the same measure of protection which it gives to him when he travels in foreign lands.”
Through her efforts, Wells launched a nationwide anti-lynching campaign. Her voluminous writings and speeches helped to catapult the issue of lynching into the center of national debates on federal anti-lynching laws. From the 1920s to the 1940s, several anti-lynching bills were introduced and passed by the House, though Southern senators quickly blocked them from becoming law.
Wells’s efforts would not be in vain, however. By the early 1930s, lynchings began to decline in the United States. Thirty-three years after Wells’s death, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 would, in effect, grant African Americans the federal protection under the law she envisioned.
Today, police violence and brutality in black communities is one of the most critical domestic challenges of our time. The growing public awareness around this issue can be attributed to the Black Lives Matter movement, a nationwide and global effort to end unjust police killings. In recent years, several activists have emphasized the need for new governmental policies that would help families secure justice for the deaths of their loved ones at the hands of the police.
With each new acquittal, the need for these policies is becoming increasingly clearer. As a group of U.N. researchers recently argued, “Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.”
What, then, is the solution to this urgent “human rights crisis”? While there are certainly many changes necessary to end police violence, on both local and national levels, Ida B. Wells’s recommendations are especially vital at this moment. Now, more than ever, we need renewed calls for federal policies that end the unlawful killing of black men and women — and ensure that those who are charged with these crimes are convicted.