This month I am writing from the road as I travel the United States’ South and Midwest and various cities and townships of Ontario, Canada touring with Inland Empire educators and parents on the Black Voice Foundation’s Footsteps to Freedom Underground Railroad Study Tour. Please join me this summer on the road…
Every summer I make a pilgrimage to two historic sites in journalism. The first is in Rochester, New York where I visit the Talman Building, the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ first newspaper The North Star. The second is in Buxton, Ontario Canada where Mary Ann Shadd, the first woman to publish a newspaper in North America, circulated the Provincial Freeman. I visit those sites as a reminder of the importance of the work we do as newspaper publishers to inform, educate, and inspire our communities. But today is the 153th anniversary of the birth of my journalism idol, another “crusader for justice”, Ms. Ida B. Wells-Barnett. In her honor I am reprinting two past columns that attempt to pay tribute to one of America’s most notable journalists, a woman whose passion for justice and equality I admire and strive to emulate every week.
What Would Ida B. Tweet?
During the month that we celebrate Women’s History and the week devoted to the Black Press, I thought it only appropriate to devote some time to Ms. Ida B. Wells, the historic journalist, editor, publisher, educator, suffragette, orator, and activist for social justice. Wells, born a slave in 1862, became an orphan at the age of 16 when her parents and one sibling died in a yellow fever epidemic. The oldest of six remaining children, she dropped out of college to become a teacher and raise her five siblings.
In 1884, 71 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, Ms. Wells refused to give up her seat in the ladies car of the Chesapeake, Ohio & Southern Railroad. In fact she fought vigorously to remain in the car, biting the conductor as he forcibly removed her. Outraged by her treatment she filed a lawsuit against the railroad and won in the lower courts in Tennessee but lost in the State Supreme Court. She was devastated by the ruling and after writing and publishing a story about her experience, turned to activism and writing for justice.
She became part owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech & Headlight, a weekly newspaper. After three of her close friends were lynched, she published an editorial “Eight Men Lynched” that made the newspaper offices the target of an angry mob. The group destroyed the offices and left a death threat for Ms. Wells. After the incident she wrote an editorial urging Blacks to move:
“There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” She moved first to New York and then settled in Chicago.
From her homebase in Chicago she led an international crusade against lynching, publishing news articles, pamphlets, and books on the subject. In 1893 she toured England and Scotland raising awareness of the practice she considered a human rights violation condoned by the government.
As a print journalist and public speaker, Ida B. Wells used the media as a tool for social justice and radical change. I can only imagine her strategy and truly global reach if she had the technology we have today. I’m sure she would utilize social media to raise awareness for her cause and galvanize her supporters. If she could convince 6,000 people to leave Memphis by publishing an editorial imploring citizens to flee, then I imagine she would use hashtags for social change #fightlynching #redrecord #nostrangefruit and her 140 character tweets would be fiery calls to action.
To learn more about Ms Wells visit: www.biography.com/people/ida-b-wells-9527635
Je Suis Charlie
Before I heard the news of the massacre at the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, I was reading two books I received as Christmas gifts that until that moment seemed to have no connection. The first, Ida B Wells: The Light of the Truth Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader includes writings by the legendary journalist that I had not read before including some of her early editorials. The other, Voltaire’s Candide, an example of French literature and culture’s tradition of satire.
When the news of the shootings at Charlie Hebdo broke I had just finished reading the introduction to chapter two in The Light of the Truth, which offers a synopsis of Wells’s writings in the Memphis Free Speech, the weekly newspaper she published in 1892. Described by contemporary scholars as “nothing short of incendiary,” her critique of lynching as a form of racial terrorism was laconic, utilizing a style of writing that was blunt and terse. Her editorials led to the destruction of her newspaper offices and very pointed death treats that prevented her from ever returning to the south.
We often don’t think of journalists as warriors on the front lines, but the attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo is a reminder that the freedom to think and speak must be guarded and protected…even sometimes with our lives. As part of a long tradition in France, satire as a literary device pokes fun at conventional traditions and institutions in an effort to provoke thought. Voltaire’s Candide, for instance is at its core a fable that argues for an enlightened attitude toward both religious and secular institutions. First published in Paris in 1759, the satire “addresses in the most direct and uncompromising was an issue that has remained as pertinent and as unresolved as it was in 1758: the origin and place of evil in the world, and how a world view based on reason can account for, if not neutralize, irrationality.” The Charlie Hebdo team used this technique with such skill that they became a target of those extremists and religious fanatics who reside outside the world of rational thought.
As millions marched in France in a show of solidarity for free speech and against terrorism and extremism, I continued to read both books, but with a new level of understanding. As a literary scholar and newspaper publisher, I’ve always understood the power of words and the power of the press. I’ve committed my life to the exploration and dissemination of ideas, and I have accepted that responsibility with a seriousness of purpose and an honor and respect for those who came before me like Ida B Wells, and my parents who published the VOICE in the 1990’s under threats and intimidation.
Fighting against the “Reign of Terror” of lynching that engulfed the southern states during her era, Wells delivered a speech to the National Press Association and explained “a fearlessly edited press is one of the crying necessities of the hour” and “that if persecuted and driven from one place, we must set up the printing press in another and continue the great work until the evils we suffer are removed…laboring to fill our columns with matter beneficial and calculated to stimulate thought.”
Like Ida B Wells, Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier understood his position as editor of Charlie Hebdo, “it’s not about religious ideology – but about freedom, liberte,” he once said. And like Wells, the editors and cartoonists of the publication saw themselves as leaders of the fight for freedom of the press – a freedom that I too have committed to defend and with which I stand in solidarity each and every week. Je Suis Charlie.