Black History Month: Ida B. Wells-Barnett

“Go tell it on the mountain.” “Sermon on the Mount.” “Spreading the gospel.” “The good news.” These are not only common phrases for Christians, but also common phrases in American culture. The idea of sharing our story, our testimony, and what we believe in with others is an integral part of our American experience – particularly the Black American experience. We know that through telling our stories, we form shared beliefs and shared cultures.

Ida B. Wells circa 1895

Throughout Black history, there are many examples of powerful orators, storytellers, and visionaries. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was all three. As a writer, editor, and newswoman, Wells-Barnett not only broadcast the injustices of anti-Black lynching; but created numerous platforms to share the stories of others with the goal of achieving justice.

In addition to utilizing her Memphis based newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech, Well-Barnett traveled the country and Europe to make light of anti-Black lynching that ravaged the American South. Her advocacy did not go unnoticed. Threats of harm from white supremacist vigilantes kept the writer and editor from her home in Memphis, Tennessee in 1893. While away from home, the well-traveled orator had made it her business to share the injustice of lynching that occurred right in a suburb right outside of Memphis. Wells-Barnett chronicles her story in her 1893 speech, “Lynch law in all its phases,” delivered in Boston.

Well-Barnett traveled across the country and across the Atlantic with the goal of engaging others in a long-term campaign to eradicate lynching and all forms of anti-Black violence. She appealed to people of all identities and self-interests, including fellow Black people, international allies, and specifically Christians. In Wells-Barnett’s 1909 speech, “Mob Murder in a Christian Nation,” the orator appeals to not only the ideals espoused by our constitution, but also appeals to the Christians of our nation.

As one of the founders of the NAACP in 1909, An early advocate of the anti-lynching bill was Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Due to her indefatigable advocacy, a federal bill to make lynching a federal crime was introduced in 1918. Now after a century, the campaign to make lynching a federal crime is still an active struggle. Just last year, the three Black senators – two Democrats, one Republican – introduced legislation to make lynching a federal crime, a signature campaign of the NAACP since 1918. However, the bill was stalled by a lone senator.

While Well-Barnett died in 1930, the campaign to eradicate anti-Black violence continues – even the goal of outlawing lynching. And while lynchings do not occur in thousands as they did during the Wells-Barnett era, lynchings and anti-Black violence still occur. This is where we must take up the mantle in the twenty-first century. As Christians, we must spread the gospel of justice. Through our Congress, we have a unique opportunity to finally outlaw these barbaric, White supremacist practices; to honor the legacy of Black leaders and ancestors who came before us; and to earn the respect of future generations. Like Well-Barnett, we as Christians must utilize our own voices and our own platforms to inform, educate, and agitate others regarding the injustice we see and employ solutions to stop injustice.