Ida B. Wells: A Legacy of Justice Deferred

Freedom Center Voices

Ida B. Wells: A Legacy of Justice Deferred

Ida B. Wells-Barnett rose to prominence in the 1890s, bringing international attention to the lynching of Black Americans in the South. After three of her friends were lynched in 1892, Wells became one of the most vocal anti-lynching activists in history.

Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Henry Stewart owned a local grocery store in Memphis, TN known as the People’s Grocery. Their economic success angered the white owners of a store across the street. On March 9, a group of white men gathered to confront McDowell, Moss, and Stewart. During the scuffle that followed, several of the white men received injuries and authorities arrested the three black business owners. A white mob subsequently broke into the jail, captured McDowell, Moss, and Stewart, and lynched them.

Anti-Lynching Campaign

Incensed by the murder of her friends, Wells launched an extensive investigation into lynching. She published a pamphlet in 1892 titled Southern Horrors which detailed her findings. Her reporting highlighted the stories of lynching victims that challenged white authority or were able to successfully compete with whites in business or politics. As a result of her outspokenness, a mob destroyed her office at the local newspaper and threatened to kill her. She fled Memphis determined to continue her campaign to raise awareness about lynching. Wells took her efforts to England and established the British Anti-Lynching Society.

Photo: The pamphlet "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all Its Phases"

Following her tour in England, she returned to the U.S. and settled in Chicago, Illinois. In 1895, Wells married attorney and newspaper editor Ferdinand L. Barnett. Together, the couple had four children who Ida raised while balancing her activism for human rights.

Wells-Barnett gave one of her most significant speeches on lynching in January 1900. In this speech, she poignantly challenged America’s morality and tolerance for the degradation of black humanity.

“Our watchword has been 'the land of the free and the home of the brave.' Brave men do not gather by thousands to torture and murder a single individual, so gagged and bound he cannot make even feeble resistance or defense. Neither do brave men or women stand by and see such things done without compunction of conscience, nor read of them without protest. Our nation has been active and outspoken in its endeavors to right the wrongs of the Armenian Christian, the Russian Jew, the Irish Home Ruler, the native women of India, the Siberian exile, and the Cuban patriot. Surely it should be the nation’s duty to correct its own evils!”


Ida also worked to advance other political causes. She helped launch the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896 and was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. She also actively campaigned for women’s suffrage, establishing the first Black women’s suffrage club in Chicago— the Alpha Suffrage Club. When Wells-Barnett travelled abroad, she often challenged white suffragists who refused to acknowledge lynching. As a result, she was often criticized by women’s suffrage organizations in the United States.

The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill

In 1918, with pressure from Wells-Barnett, Congressman Leonidas Dyer of Missouri first introduced his anti-lynching bill—known as the Dyer Bill —into Congress. The NAACP supported the passage of this bill from 1919 onward. The Dyer Bill was passed by the House of Representatives on January 26, 1922 and given a favorable report by the Senate Committee in July 1922. Even so, its passage was halted by a filibuster in the Senate. Efforts to pass similar legislation were not taken up again until the 1930s with the Costigan-Wagner Bill. The Dyer Bill influenced the text of anti-lynching legislation promoted by the NAACP into the 1950s, including the Costigan-Wagner Bill.

Photo: The pamphlet "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all Its Phases"

Photo: Ida with her children, 1909

If We Truly Value All Lives, Why Is This Still A Debate?

In 2020, animal cruelty is a federal crime. Yet the lynching of human beings as a federal crime is still a matter of debate among U.S. lawmakers today. The bill, called the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, was passed by the House in February 2020 by a vote of 410 to 4. It was backed by 99 Senators who urged for this change to address a crime that continues to terrorize Black Americans. However, in June 2020, the objections of a few influential lawmakers prevented the bill from becoming law.

It’s remarkable that lynching, which has a horrific legacy of targeted abuse and trauma toward Black Americans, is not yet considered a federal crime. History reveals that the divisions that continue to exist in this nation have long been centered on the inequitable treatment of Black Americans. Our laws are tied to this social construct of race, and I feel that’s why we see efforts to suppress meaningful changes to the law when it comes to matters of racial violence and justice—the same meaningful changes that Ida B. Wells-Barnett crusaded for over 100 years ago. Because of our inability as Americans to acknowledge and correct our painful history, it is my argument that her legacy remains deferred today.

Honor Ida B. Wells Today

Do you think Congress should pass the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act? Become a part of the conversation by adding your name to the petition urging Congress to pass the Anti-Lynching bill now. You can find the petition here:


Christopher Miller

Senior Director of Education & Community Engagement
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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