I can’t remember when I first saw one of those horrible photographs of a lynching, with crowds of white people, kids included, laughing and pointing at the mangled black body hanging from a tree. I do know that such images were part of my childhood mental archive of atrocities, together with stacks of dead bodies in the liberated concentration camps and naked children running from napalm in Vietnam. Images like that made me a historian.
But I didn’t have to live any of that history. Ida B. Wells did. A young journalist, she happened to be out of town when a game of marbles escalated into the lynching of three men who were pillars of the Memphis black community. She knew all of them; one was a close friend. Ida B. Wells was nobody’s fool – she’d already sued two train companies for denying her a seat in the “Ladies’ Car” and she’d long written about racial injustice. But she wasn’t prepared for the viciousness of this lynching, or for the subsequent defamation of its victims in the white press. She published a strongly-worded editorial, moved north – after that editorial, there was a warrant on her life in the South – and became an internationally-known crusader against lynching.
In her book, To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells (Hill and Wang, 2009), historian Mia Bay takes us from Wells’s Reconstruction-era Mississippi childhood, through the anti-lynching work for which she’s best remembered, and on to her work for urban reform in Chicago during the Great Migration. Along the way we see struggles around race, class, and gender in American history: the linkage of sexual and racial terror in lynching, of course, but also questions about what it meant for a minimally-educated Black woman to be an activist. Mia Bay is associate professor of history and the associate director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity at Rutgers University. Read her book – you’ll be glad you did.