Written by: Melissa Harris-Perry
I want to be Ida B. Wells when I grow up. If I had to choose just one black woman as my role model – and thank goodness I don’t have to choose just one – Ida B. Wells is that woman. Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, Wells became, at 14, the de facto mother of her six siblings after a yellow fever epidemic killed her parents. She entered the battle for racial freedom in 1884 when she refused to give up her seat in the “ladies car” and move to the Jim Crow car on a Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company train while traveling through Memphis. She took her case to court under the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination. She won in the local circuit courts, but lost the appeal to the Supreme Court of Tennessee.
It is her work as a social scientist, journalist, and uncompromising advocate for human rights that made me fall in love with Wells when I first read her writings. In 1892, three of her male friends were viciously murdered by a lynch mob angered by the success of their small grocery store. In response, Wells devoted much of her career to researching and writing about lynching. She was a fierce advocate against this brutal and growing practice of racial terror and her advocacy came at tremendous personal cost.
Wells used journalism and academic inquiry as weapons in the long struggle for equality. Paula Giddings’ recent biography of Wells, A Sword Among Lions, is an exquisite historical biography of this amazing woman.