EDITORIAL: Ida B. Wells’ work far from finished
The 2020 Pulitzer Prizes were announced last week, and the most noteworthy selection may well have been the honor bestowed upon a recipient who has been dead almost 90 years.
Pioneering journalist Ida B. Wells received a posthumous special citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
The honor is not only well-deserved and long overdue, it is a reminder that, as the arrest of a father and son in Georgia last week for the shooting of an unarmed African-American man demonstrates, the racial violence Wells fought so hard to counter continues to reverberate today.
Wells’ work was not only ground-breaking, it was, quite literally, death-defying.
Born a slave in Mississippi in 1862, she battled as a young activist for Civil Rights in the post-Reconstruction South. By the time she turned 30, she was co-owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, a black-owned newspaper from which she used her columns to rail against lynching and other racial atrocities.
“In one of her most famous columns, Wells attacked the supposed reason for the lynching of black men, the rape of white women,” the Tennessee Encyclopedia recounts. “Suggesting that white women only claimed rape after their illicit affairs with black men had been discovered.”
This wasn’t just provocative opinion — the stock-in-trade of too much of today’s commentariat. Wells traversed the Deep South to personally investigate lynchings, interviewing witnesses and researching records — “a process that laid the groundwork for modern investigative techniques,” noted the Pulitzer panel.
The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight met the same fate as many an African-American enterprise in the late 19th Century (and for many decades to follow): destroyed by white hands and white hatred. Wells was out of town that fateful May 1892 day; she wouldn’t return south for some 30 years.
White hatred, unfortunately, took deep root. The failure of Reconstruction was followed by Jim Crow laws, resurgence of the KKK and similar hate groups, the blood-spattered Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, “tough-on-crime” political policies that — surprise, surprise — disproportionately targeted African-Americans, and a succession of unarmed men of color being summarily and tragically killed.
The latest example is playing out in Georgia, where father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael, who are white, were belatedly arrested last week in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery.
Arbery, who would have turned 26 Friday, was jogging through a neighborhood near Brunswick, Georgia, back on Feb. 23 when he drew the attention of the McMichaels, who later said they thought he might be a burglary suspect.
Instead of calling the police, the two men grabbed their rifles, chased down and confronted Arbery. Minutes later the jogger lay dead.
The local district attorney initially said — surprise, surprise — he didn’t see any grounds for arrest. That was before video of the assault — recorded by a neighbor of the McMichaels — was made public. Grounds have since been found.
This should not be happening in America 130 years after Ida B. Wells campaigned against terrorism against black Americans, 65 years after the lynching of Emmitt Tills, 50-plus years after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 29 years after Rodney King. Yet the list grows every year: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Markeis McGlockton, Ahmaud Arbery.
In that sense, Pulitzer recognition for Ida B. Wells is especially timely. While it shines a spotlight on the work of a brave and trailblazing journalist, it likewise illuminates the long path America must yet travel to erase the racial terrorism she campaigned against.