By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
These words, uttered by investigative journalist, civil rights activist and trailblazer, Ida B. Wells, in many ways exemplify the very way she lived her life and why so many people, including visiting Mount Saint Mary College professor, Sarah Silkey, continue to be so fascinated with mining and sharing every detail about her incredible journey. Thursday, at the Mount’s Kaplan Family Library and Learning Center, Silkey, a Professor of History and Social and Economic Justice at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, presented those diamonds of illuminating information in a talk titled, “To Tell the World the Truth: Ida B. Wells and the Fight Against Lynching.”
“She was an incredible person with a great mind,” Silkey said about Wells, who she has written a book about and researched extensively throughout her career. “She was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize, but there was a long, long road to this achievement.”
Referring to Wells as “a modern day Muckraker,” reform-minded journalist who expose corruption and wrongdoings, Silkey initiated her talk, telling guests Wells was born to slave parents; her father-who refused to be denied his right to vote- set the precedent for Wells’ brewing activism. Part of the “Freedom Generation” after Reconstruction, Wells, like many other African-Americans, aspired to upward mobility. She turned to journalism as a means of expression and love for writing; however, soon entered the investigative realm she is best known for when three African-American businessmen in Memphis were shockingly lynched.
“This was clearly a situation where the community was shielding the people to blame for the lynching of these men,” said Silkey about Wells’ induction into the world of activism.
Silkey, using two large Powerpoint screens, highlighted the different resistance strategies Wells urged Blacks to use: Economic boycott, migration and armed defense. She then revealed a quote by Wells on the potent need for the last.
“A Winchester Rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”
Silkey further outlined the indisputable power of journalism and its ability to shape narratives through its language; words matter as they shape understanding. Alluding to how people would attend a lynching as if it was a celebrations, an event that was publically acceptable, Silkey delved into how Wells’ truthful writings were transformational, opening people’s eyes to a whole other perception.
“Journalism is incredibly powerful; it can show how lynching is different than murder,” said Silkey. “Ida felt it imperative that we dismantle the white narratives that people had about lynching.”
And Wells went on to do just that. Exposing how lynching rationales extended far beyond the fear of a black man raping a white woman, Wells delineated an assortment of the other irrational justifications: frontier justice, anti-abolitionist violence, and correction for corrupt rudimentary systems. Wells found only about one-third of Lynching cases had rape and sexual impropriety roots; rather there were cases of black men asking white women to marry them, “giving information,” and even no offense at all. She further questioned a host of other methodologies aimed at maintaining the racism and power embedded in lynching; a dominant white press, distorted lynching statistics, faulty investigative reports and disturbing cases of women and children.
Wells’ courageous work led to her death threats here in the United States, forcing her to relocate to Britain, where she continued her fight against lynching. Her anti-caste campaign included; drafting newsletter, speaking engagements, interviewing the British press and other pro-active means.
Silkey further indicated how lynching is a “justified cycle” for Black oppression: segregate, convict and lynch; the modern day parallel in some ways prevails: poverty, mass incarceration and state-sanctioned violence have replaced it, but the struggle remains.
“Lynching has nothing to do with justice; it’s not about rape, but rather racial terrorization, control and power,” affirmed Silkey.
The talk concluded with the latter part of Wells’ life, which included the incredible changes she was able to make through her journalistic efforts, revealing so many hidden and harmful truths. Silkey further pointed to Wells’ later work with political activism, the women’s suffrage movement, National Association of Colored Women, and run for Senate. In fact, a Barbie Doll was even made in her honor.
“You know you have really made it when you have a Barbie Doll made after you,” smiled Silkey about the woman who served as an incredible inspiration to countless people, forever transforming the landscape of how African-Americans were perceived in the press and far beyond.