Antilynching Campaign

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African American women played a key role in the fight to stop lynchings in the United States. In 1892, following the lynchings of three of her friends, Ida B. Wells became a leader in the antilynching movement. Wells's friends—Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Steward—were lynched in Memphis, Tennessee, after protecting their grocery store from an angry white mob who believed that blacks should not own a store. The store had been targeted by whites because it was successful and thus deemed threatening by some whites in the community. Wells's anger over this incident fueled her desire to push for federal antilynching legislation.
Wells used her newspaper, Free Speech, to speak out on the continuous lynchings of African Americans in the United States. She noted that although allegations of rape were usually cited as the cause of particular lynchings, it was in fact typically economic competition or outright racism that provoked the lynching. She also condemned lynchings as a sign of the perverted, sick mind of white America. Wells made enemies with her assertions, and in 1895 when she published a statistical analysis of lynchings in the South called the Red Record, an angry white mob took action and destroyed her newspaper office. Wells then moved to Illinois and continued her activism there. Beginning in 1898, Wells worked tirelessly to try and persuade the federal government to pass antilynching legislation. While this legislation was never passed, Wells did successfully pressure Illinois Governor Charles Deneen into not rehiring a white sheriff who presided over the lynchings of two blacks during the race riot in 1908 in Springfield, Illinois.
Another key figure in the antilynching movement was Mary Church Terrell. Terrell chose to use the political route to protest lynching. She was the founder and first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), an organization designed to help African American women socially, economically, and politically. Using the NACW platform of self-help and protest, Terrell encouraged black women to provide a strong moral example in their families and communities and to use that example on the world stage to combat racism and prejudice. Her own writings and public speeches garnered her respect from women in both the United States and Europe. Terrell's activism as president of NACW focused on providing information on lynchings and pressuring the U.S. government to enact legislation against lynching. Mary Church Terrell also fought against segregation and, in fact, one of her last acts was to protest segregation in restaurants in Washington, D. C. In 1950, she successfully cofiled a case against discrimination that ultimately ended with a court decision favoring desegregation of eating facilities in the nation's capital.
Although their efforts to obtain federal antilynching legislation were not successful, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell provided a shining example of the activism of African American women after Reconstruction. Their activism inspired later generations to continue the fight against racism and prejudice and to improve life conditions for the African American family in the 21st century.

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Further Reading

  • Harris, Trudier. (Ed.). (1991). Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. New York: Oxford University Press. This is the best collection of works by Ida B. Wells-Barnett. It is well organized and presented in a scholarly manner.
  • Riggs, Marcia. (Ed.). (1985). Can I Get a Witness? Prophetic Religious Voices of African American Women: An Anthology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. This book contains essays by African American women on the issues of lynching and racism.
  • Wells, Ida B. (1899). Lynch Law in Georgia. Chicago: Chicago Colored Citizens. This is Wells's report on the cruelty and viciousness of lynch law in the state of Georgia.