Who is Bell?

This is a story about Bell and how she made a difference in this world. She had a rough start, and she had a temper, but she directed that energy into fighting against discrimination and injustice. But who is she? Has she done something extraordinary that you might have heard about?

If anyone tries to tell you – whenever, wherever, and whoever you are – that you can’t make a difference because of the time you live in, the place you live in, or the hurdles you have to get over because of who you are, just consider this.

Mentioned links:

Ida B. Wells [Wikipedia]

To Keep the Waters Troubled, The Life of Ida B. Wells, Chapter One

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Negroes and the Gun: A Winchester “in every Black home”

The Great Equalizer

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Show transcript

I want to tell you the story of Bell, a strong woman and role model that you may not have heard of. But she was a woman who’s life experiences sent her on a crusade that made a difference.

Bell was born in the summer of ’62 in Mississippi, the first of 8 siblings. Her father, James, was a carpenter and worked for a local architect. James had done some college, but dropped out to help his family.

Both James and his wife Elizabeth were active in the Republican Party. James was quite interested in politics, actually. He’d even campaigned for some local candidates, though he himself never ran for office.

Unfortunately, both of Bell’s parents and her youngest sibling died before she went to college. I wonder if that traumatic experience, so young, contributed to her personality.

Bell was something of a hot-head, and though she attended the same college as her father, she got expelled over a confrontation with the college president, quite early in her studies. In the moment, she resented the president, but I will say that, over time, she realized that it really was her temper that got her dismissed, and she made peace with that. She did manage to redirect that energy to more useful pursuits, as you’ll soon see.

About this time, Bell took 3 of her youngest siblings and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she was getting paid better. She also continued her college education, presumably avoiding altercations with the President. She did have some strong opinions on women’s rights, in her early 20s, and directed that fire through her pen. She was writing for a small DC paper, and a local Memphis church newspaper as well.

At one point, however, she trained her sights on race issues, and got quite a reputation for her simple and direct style of arguments. Her’s were not merely think pieces for the intellegencia. Bell wrote for the common man. She wanted to make a change. This reputation got her an editor’s job at another Memphis paper; a paper she eventually co-owned by buying out one of the partners.

Her reputation was not, however, appreciated by everyone. She lost her day-job when she criticized the way blacks were treated there. And that reputation grew into a full-blown crusade when 3 black grocery store owners were murdered for the “crime” of competing successfully with white-owned businesses.

Yes, that temper, properly channeled, was now being used to fight racial injustice. Bell became an investigative journalist, getting the truth out about these racially-motivated murders. Many times, the perpetrators were let off the hook by equally racist local authorities, but she dug for the details; bringing to light the inconvenient truths.

But inconvenient truths make equally inconvenient enemies. Bell took to packing heat; carrying a gun for self-defense. She also got out of Memphis and moved to Chicago. Well, before their tight restrictions on guns.

She married while she was there, and then Bell took her crusade on the road, touring Europe twice. She brought her speeches over there, exposing racial injustice to crowds of thousands. Some were shocked, and some were doubtful, but at least they heard. They could no longer say that they didn’t know. Once again, Bell’s temper and her father’s activism served her well.

If you didn’t know Bell before, you may have heard all this and wondered why you hadn’t. She seemed to have achieved a degree of fame, but is there something she did that you might know about? Turns out there is. She helped co-found an organization consistent with her activism; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP. In 1909. You see, Bell – Ida Bell Wells, born in 1862 – achieved everything I’ve mentioned, and more, as a black woman during Reconstruction.

So let’s go back and revisit some of her history.

I said her father was a carpenter who worked for a local architect. In fact, Bell was born a few months before the Emancipation Proclamation, so her father was, in fact, a slave of the architect. Ida helped cook at the house. The deaths of her parents and youngest sibling? A yellow fever outbreak.  Those papers she wrote for? They were black-run newspapers. However, she was the first African-American woman to be a paid correspondent for a mainstream white newspaper, the Daily Inter-Ocean, a Republican newspaper in Chicago. It was the only major white paper that persistently denounced lynching.

And speaking of lynching, those were the racially-motivated murders she crusaded against, both in the US and in Europe. I suggest you read up on her, where you’ll find, among other stories, one where she refused to give up her seat on a train and move to the already-packed smoking car. At the tender age of 22, she was the original Rosa Parks, and her experience with that launched her activism.

But her big cause was, not just discrimination against women and blacks, but against the lynchings of blacks at the hands of whites. In one of her pamphlets on the subject, Ida B. Wells wrote this. “Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year, the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves…The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense. The lesson this teaches, and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that 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.” In fact, many black leaders at the time agreed, including W. E. B. DuBois, the biggest name among the NAACP founders. These days, I believe that advice is still good. A good guy with a gun can sometimes stop a bad guy with a gun, or a rope.

Ida B. Wells; writer, activist, newspaper columnist and owner, and public speaker. If anyone tries to tell you – whenever, wherever, and whoever you are – that you can’t make a difference because of the time you live in, the place you live in, or the hurdles you have to get over because of who you are, just consider this.

Filed under: Gun ControlInterestingRace IssuesSpecial editions