July is the birthday month of many strong women! Caroline (July 3), Margaret Walker (July 7), June Jordan (July 9), Mary McLeod Bethune (July 10), and today, July 16, is the birthday of Ida B. Wells. She was born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on the land owned by the man who “owned” her father and mother, Jim and Elizabeth Wells. She was born just before General Grant’s troops captured Holly Springs in the Civil War. It would be a few more months before Union control of Holly Springs was solidified, but Ida Wells lived the early years of her life in slavery, yet under the oversight of the Union army. On the land where she was born, there now stands not the house of her former owner but rather a museum in her memory.
And, remembered she should be! Though born into slavery, she came to consciousness in the time of the Emancipation Proclamation and the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Thus, her primary definition was not “slave,” not “property of white people.” Her primary definition was daughter of God, woman held in slavery by those who professed the idea that all people are created equal. She never allowed that internalized oppression to enter her heart and consciousness. She never accepted the idea that she and her family were slaves because they were supposed to be slaves. She understood from the earliest stages that she was held as a slave because of the oppressive nature of the masters, and this consciousness made a huge difference in her life and in her imagination.
I have written about Ida Wells often, and Catherine Meeks and I are now working on a book about her witness for our time. For today’s blog, I want to share one snapshot from her life. In 1875 in its last significant law for civil rights until 1957, the U. S. Congress passed an act that forbade segregation on public accommodations. In 1883, the US Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional, and the floodgates of segregation and re-enslavement were open fully. In the spring of 1884, Ida Wells followed her usual pattern of purchasing a seat in the ladies car on the train on a trip out of Memphis. After the train had pulled out, the conductor came to collect the tickets and then informed her that she would have to move to the car reserved for black people. Seventy-one years before Rosa Parks, she refused to give up her seat, and when he grabbed her and tried to pull her up from her seat, she bit his hand and braced herself not to move – no nonviolent resistance for her. He went to get male reinforcements, and it took three men to throw her off the train.
Undeterred, she took the railroad to court under Tennessee law, and the judge who heard the case was a former Union soldier. He ruled in her favor and awarded her $500 in damages. She was thrilled with the victory, but it was short-lived. The railroad appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, and in 1887, they overturned the verdict. Ida Wells was crestfallen and wrote in her diary on April 11:
“I had hoped for such great things from my suit for my people generally. I have firmly believed all along that the law was on our side and would, when we appealed to it, give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged, and just now if it were possible would gather my race in my arms and fly far away with them.”
Wells was beginning to develop the sense that the power of racism was deep and wide in those classified as “white,” and she would later lift up a phrase that ironically Ronald Reagan would use as one of his hallmark phrases: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Wells meant it in the sense that we know it today: racism is deeply embedded and intertwined in our American consciousness, and we must always be working to mitigate its loathsome power. Some of us had hoped that its power was ebbing with the election of Barack Obama, but we have seen so many examples of its continuing power, not the least of which was the election of the ultimate white man, Donald Trump, whose signature phrase was “Make America Great Again.” We call it “staying woke” today – Wells called it eternal vigilance.
Wells would be shaking her head but also shaking her fist and calling on all of us to stand and seek to deliver on the promises of the powerful idea of equality, adopted in her birth month into the Declaration of Independence. Through many dangers, toils, and snares, she stood and delivered, and on her birthday, let us seek to walk in some of her steps. If you’d like a short intro to her life, let me know, and I’ll send you one. Or find her autobiography “Crusade for Justice,” lovingly pieced together by her daughter Alfreda Duster.
From the blog