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How Ida B. Wells became a trailblazing journalist

Ida B. Wells would have celebrated her 153rd birthday today.
Ida B. Wells would have celebrated her 153rd birthday today.
Chicago History Museum/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Ida B. Wells was a groundbreaking journalist, an activist, a co-founder of the NAACP, and even a precursor to Rosa Parks — it's difficult to choose which occupation defines her legacy best. She was born into slavery in 1862; today would have been her 153rd birthday (the reason she's celebrated with a Google Doodle).

But there's a short quote, excerpted from her 1895 book, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, that shows what made her so special. The book describes, in clear and logical prose, the brutal and illegal lynchings that were sweeping the country at the time.

Wells believed in the power of the truth to change, over time, the way people lived and who their laws served. She wrote:

The very frequent inquiry made after my lectures by interested friends is "What can I do to help the cause?" The answer always is: "Tell the world the facts."

Lynching was vastly underreported in the media, and Wells believed that simply stating the facts, clearly and with good reporting, could help change the mind of the mob. In a preface to the book, Frederick Douglass wrote: "You have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured."

Born into slavery, Wells was first to a number of civil rights causes

An 1892 portrait of Wells

An 1892 portrait of Wells.

Fotosearch/Getty Images

Wells had a difficult youth. As Linda O. McMurry writes in her biography To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells, she was born in 1862 in Mississippi to enslaved parents who then died from yellow fever when Wells was a teenager. Not content to simply manage the misfortunes that had befallen her, she attended Rust College and worked as a teacher.

At 20, Wells's civil rights career began with an incredible lawsuit: She challenged a railroad company for kicking her out of first class. When she was ordered to leave the women's car for the smoking car, instead of moving, Wells held her ground. She was removed from the train and sued the railroad company, claiming it had violated the 1875 Civil Rights Act. Though she won in court, the case was reversed on appeal.

That setback, in turn, kicked off Wells's career in journalism, in which she documented her own obstacles as well as those that other African Americans faced. She became a full-time journalist after being dismissed for criticizing the Memphis School Board, and she edited the Memphis Free Speech newspaper.

The tragic lynching of three friends in 1892 led her to perhaps her most famous cause: documenting and denouncing executions performed by the mob. Books like The Red Record and Mob Rule in New Orleans, along with pamphlets, articles, and lectures, carefully documented what was happening throughout the South at the time. Many lynchings were based on the fear of black men raping white women; Wells responded by meticulously explaining why the accusations were false and unfounded. Her work became influential in the United States and in England, which was particularly receptive to the post–Civil War struggles of black Americans.

Being a woman only compounded the obstacles Wells faced. She was constantly at odds with an early civil rights movement that privileged the rights and concerns of men — and a movement that often expected activists to choose between racial equality and gender equality, rather than champion both. Wells refused to do so, and as a leader she worked with both W.E.B. DuBois and Susan B. Anthony.

Wells's career continued as she built a family of her own (though Susan B. Anthony worried motherhood would cause Wells to have a "divided loyalty" to her causes). She moved to Chicago with her husband (championing anti-segregationist causes there), lectured around the world, wrote a memoir, and continued fighting for the causes she'd championed all her life. She continued as an activist until her death in 1931.

Because Wells was an author, her record is filled with eloquent quotes: An early lecture poster, from 1892, is still evocative today, thanks to the quote that appears next to Wells's picture: "The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them." Other quotes show the fire that motivated her to fight: "One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap."

But her writing wasn't limited to aphorisms. As she wrote in The Red Record:

Therefore, we demand a fair trial by law for those accused of crime, and punishment by law after honest conviction. No maudlin sympathy for criminals is solicited, but we do ask that the law shall punish all alike. We earnestly desire those that control the forces which make public sentiment to join with us in the demand. Surely the humanitarian spirit of this country which reaches out to denounce the treatment of the Russian Jews, the Armenian Christians, the laboring poor of Europe, the Siberian exiles and the native women of India—will not longer refuse to lift its voice on this subject.

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