Black Religion / Womanist Thought / Social Justice
Series Editors Dwight N. Hopkins and Linda E. Thomas
Published by Palgrave Macmillan
“How Long this Road”: Race, Religion, and the Legacy of C. Eric Lincoln
Edited by Alton B. Pollard, III and Love Henry Whelchel, Jr.
African American Humanist Principles: Living and Thinking Like the Children of
By Anthony B. Pinn
White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity
By James W. Perkinson
The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity: Race, Heathens,
and the People of God
By Sylvester Johnson
Loving the Body: Black Religious Studies and the Erotic
Edited by Anthony B. Pinn and Dwight N. Hopkins
Transformative Pastoral Leadership in the Black Church
By Jeffery L. Tribble, Sr.
Shamanism, Racism, and Hip Hop Culture: Essays on White Supremacy and Black
By James W. Perkinson
Women, Ethics, and Inequality in U.S. Healthcare: “To Count Among the Living”
By Aana Marie Vigen
Black Theology in Transatlantic Dialogue: Inside Looking Out, Outside Looking In
By Anthony G. Reddie
Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil
By Emilie M. Townes
Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty
By Jennifer Harvey
Black Theology and Pedagogy
By Noel Leo Erskine
The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Mpilo Tutu
By Johnny B. Hill
Conceptions of God, Freedom, and Ethics in African American and Jewish Theology
By Kurt Buhring
The Origins of Black Humanism in America: Reverend Ethelred Brown and the
By Juan M. Floyd-Thomas
Black Religion and the Imagination of Matter in the Atlantic World
By James A. Noel
Bible Witness in Black Churches
By Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher
Enslaved Women and the Art of Resistance in Antebellum America
By Renee K. Harrison
Ethical Complications of Lynching: Ida B. Wells’s Interrogation of American Terror
By Angela D. Sims
Representations of Homosexuality: Black Liberation Theology and Cultural Criticism
By Roger A. Sneed (forthcoming)
The Tragic Vision of African American Religion
By Matthew V. Johnson (forthcoming)
Uncovering Womanism: Ethical Themes and Values in Alice Walker’s
By Melanie Harris (forthcoming)
Women’s Spirituality and Education in the Black Church
By Yolanda Y. Smith (forthcoming)
Racism and the Image of God
By Karen Teel (forthcoming)
Ethical Complications of Lynching
Ida B. Wells’s Interrogation of
Angela D. Sims
Series Editors’ Preface ix
Part One Identity and Formation: Character
Development and the Shaping of a
“Crusader for Justice”
One Black Slave Family’s Moral Situation in Mississippi
during the Civil War 21
Two Freed-Person of Color’s Moral Situation in Mississippi
during Reconstruction 27
Three Head of Family’s Response to the 1878 Yellow
Fever Epidemic 35
Part Two A Matter of Perspective: Ida B. Wells’s
Critique of Lynching
Four Wells on Lynching: An Overview 45
Five Investigating Facts 49
Six Interpreting Data 63
Seven Challenging “Alleged Causes” 69
Part Three Beyond Rope and Fagot: A Womanist
Ethical Analysis of Lynching
Eight The Issue of Race and Lynching 79
Nine The Social Construction of Gender and Lynching 87
Ten The Intersection of Economics and Lynching 91
Part Four A Paradigm Shift: Resources for a Christian
Ethic of Resistance in the Works of Ida B. Wells
Eleven Re-Orientation: Viewing Justice in a Racially
Violent World 101
Twelve Re-Evaluation: Demythologizing Hegemonic
Thirteen Re-Interpretation: Defining Hope from a Minority
Fourteen Just Act: A Mandate to Talk about the Lynched 127
Series Editors’ Preface
In the contemporary period of justifiable concern about interna-
tional terrorism, Angela D. Sims’s book recasts the American gaze
from external to internal, homegrown, Christian forms of racial-
ized terrorism. Indeed, Ethical Complications of Lynching: Ida B.
Wells’s Interrogation of American Terror persuades us with compas-
sion and intellect to consider the ethical insights from the peculiar
American terror of race and faith. Or, in the memorable lyrics of
blues-diva and tragic-triumphant singer, Billie Holiday, the United
States produced “some strange fruit” that hung from southern and
northern trees. Lynching, this made-in-the-U.S.A. fruit, was funda-
mental to the dark side of America’s look at the world, construc-
tion of nature, and faith in God. Black people were the fruit. Mostly
men, they were strung up on a tree, beaten to a bloody pulp; and,
on Sundays, people would leave church to go pick the skin and body
parts off of this fruit.
Thus the ethics of lynching, with families attending the practice of
participation by multigenerations of believers in God, challenges us
to review and represent a positive Christian ethic for positive commu-
nity formation today. In a sense, parallels are inevitable: black men’s
battered and broken bodies dangling from a tree; Jesus’ battered and
broken body dangling from a cross of trees.
Yet Sims complicates the obvious with scholarly nuance and a
writer’s finesse. Sims utilizes Ida B. Wells’s thought, faith, and work
against lynching to surface ethics for today. We know Wells as the his-
toric crusader for justice. Not guns but the power of the written word
became the weapons of resistance and ethical community building
for Wells. She owned newspapers, published books, and wrote bril-
liantly about lynching terrorism. Indeed, her risk taking, life sacrific-
ing, and tenacious fact finding paint a path to moral engagement with
right and wrong. Sims calls it the “power of persuasive discourse.”
We might also call it “to do justice”: the human community requires
a Bible in one hand and a contemporary newspaper in the other.
x Series Editors’ Preface
Methodologically, Sims applies womanist ethics on the “ought”
and “should” in human relations. Womanism, an academic discipline
and church practice, heralds back to formation from the late 1970s to
the mid-1980s. Black women pastors and scholars clustered, primar-
ily, around Union Theological Seminary (New York City) searched
for common ground in their common experiences. As rising leaders
and lay workers in Christian churches and educational institutions,
they knew they had a positive relation to the Christian God. Jesus
had made a way in their lives and on the rough side of their mammas’
and Big Mammas’ lives. Fathers and grandfathers had also called the
prayer line of faith. Even under slavery, black women’s ancestors had
had a little talk with “massa Jesus.”
So when black women students at Union self-reflected on their
positive relations to God, they named themselves womanist ethicists
and theologians. Actually, in 1979, foremother, Union Ph.D. student
Jackie Grant, coined the self-description of black feminist Christians.
Yet, this name eventually proved limiting. It correctly pointed to black
women’s solidarity with black male theologians, hence the “black.”
And it correctly pointed to black women’s solidarity with white
women theologians, hence the “feminist.” Still African-American
women’s positive relation to God was complicated and, at times, des-
ecrated by sexism in the black theology way of life and racism in the
feminist claims to gender universality.
Womanism, therefore, is a method of celebrating black women’s
agency of forming herself, her family, her community, nature and
ecology, and all peoples on planet earth. And God’s insights on what
are good and not-so-good moral practices inform womanist ethics.
Faith practice can move us beyond the encumbrances of human evil.
This is where and when Angela D. Sims enters. She positions her-
self squarely within the womanist ethical tradition. Choosing lynch-
ing as the subject matter, Ida B. Wells as the biographical figure, and
womanism as the methodology, Sims crafts artfully what is to be done
today. With novel insight, she proposes an ethic of boycott, migrate,
Thus Sims raises the perennial questions of universal moral
dilemmas: to build individual virtues and the common good in North
America today, what communal values do we discern from America’s
egregious period of lynching? The womanist thought and life of
Ida B. Wells helps us to pause and think critically about that future
being realized now—that is to say, live out now what we are striving
for to come.
Series Editors’ Preface xi
In a word, Christian ethics is deliberate, intentional, self-reflective
examination of the choices applied in moral decision-making to
achieve the good life. And Ethical Complications of Lynching: Ida
B. Wells’s Interrogation of American Terror falls within the best part
of this tradition. Indeed, it represents one definite dimension of the
black religion/womanist thought/social justice series’ pioneering con-
ceptual work and boundary-pushing effort. The series will publish
both authored and edited manuscripts that have depth, breadth, and
theoretical edge and will address both academic and nonspecialist
audiences. It will produce works engaging any dimension of black reli-
gion or womanist thought as they pertain to social justice. Womanist
thought is a new approach in the study of African-American women’s
perspectives. The series will include a variety of African-American
religious expressions. By this we mean traditions such as Protestant
and Catholic Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Humanism, African
Diasporic practices, religion and gender, religion and black gays/
lesbians, ecological justice issues, African-American religiosity and
its relation to African religions, Taoism, Buddhism, new black reli-
gious movements (e.g., Daddy Grace, Father Divine, or the Nation of
Islam), or religious dimensions in African-American “secular” expe-
riences (such as the spiritual aspects of aesthetic efforts such as the
Harlem Renaissance and literary giants such as James Baldwin, or the
religious fervor of the Black Consciousness movement, or the religion
of compassion in the black women’s club movement).
Dwight N. Hopkins, University of Chicago
Linda E. Thomas, Lutheran School of Theology
I work with a remarkable group of individuals who self-identify as
scholar-pastors. Each of them embodies this understanding of call in
unique ways. There are a few, however, who warrant special recog-
nition. I am thankful to President Myron F. McCoy and Pamela D.
Couture, vice president for Academic Affairs and dean, who work to
create constantly an environment at Saint Paul School of Theology
in Kansas City, MO, where I can “do the work my soul must have.”
Harold C. Washington read this manuscript prior to my dissertation
defense and provided comments that were most helpful to my revis-
ing the material for a book; James M. Brandt, Nancy R. Howell,
and Patricia Beattie Jung offered invaluable assistance in my ongo-
ing scholarly formation; and Israel Kamudzandu, F. Douglas Powe,
Elaine A. Robinson, and Claire Smith provided many opportunities
to discuss the relevance of this project for the church.
I also want to thank Samantha Hasey, editorial assistant at Palgrave
Macmillan, for guiding me in this initial publication process and her
prompt responses to my numerous emails.
An amazing circle of family, friends, and colleagues made this tran-
sition from dissertation to monograph possible. I would be remiss if I
did not mention two friends, Cindy Bowers and April Swofford, who
provided countless hours of technical support. Finally, I am especially
grateful to my spouse, Terron, and our children, Terron II, Douglas,
and Helene who continue to remind me, in countless ways, that with
God all things are possible.
When the universal does not comport with the particular we must re-evaluate how
to respond when the impersonal becomes personal.
—Angela D. Sims1
He lived near the eighth fairway in a planned community that included
multiple “human-designed” lakes, tennis courts, a country club, and
schools. Employed as a senior executive by a leading national organi-
zation, he was active in his community and church. Married for more
than twenty-five years, his oldest son was a graduate of the same
tier one institution where his youngest son was matriculating. His
daughter, a recent high school graduate, would commence her under-
graduate studies in the fall at one of the top-rated public universities
in the nation. In fact, he looked forward to his time with his baby girl
on Monday when they would journey to the small college town for
her orientation and foreign-language placement examinations. But on
Sunday, his sense of normalcy came to a screeching halt. Minutes
before midnight, three police officers arrived at his home and arrested
him for breaking and entering and sexual assault. Without any physi-
cal evidence or investigative findings prior to the arrest and subse-
quent preliminary hearing, he was arraigned and indicted based on
the believability of his accuser.
Six weeks after his arrest and arraignment, he sat in the court-
room with family members and his pastor and watched his neighbor
of eight years enter the preliminary hearing. He listened as his accuser
provided an account that defied reason and left much room, or so he
thought, for reasonable doubt. Although it would not make any dif-
ference, he was thankful that in a matter best characterized as “she
said/he said,” he had retained a court reporter to record the proceed-
ings. In the short run, it would not make any difference. He was not
2 Ethical Complications of Lynching
aware that the prosecutor controls the criminal procedure, including
the grand jury process. Thus, evidence and proof are not criteria and
breaking and entering, at least in this particular jurisdiction, could
be subjectively defined as someone alleging that you refused to leave
His family’s life became a living nightmare. They attempted to
make sense out of madness. His wife could not sleep. Anger con-
sumed her. Hatred welled up in her. Trying to rationalize the situation
and to control her anger his wife ignored his attorney’s instructions
and shared the story with trusted colleagues, who initially responded
that the charges would probably be dropped. Yet, when his wife men-
tioned that their neighbor, the accuser, was white, her colleagues
retracted their previous reaction. After all, this was still the South
where, as someone ominously pointed out, some white residents are
very good at living in the past but not so good at living in the present
or preparing to live in the future.
It did not matter that he had no prior criminal record. It did not
matter that there was no evidence. It did not matter that the alleged
victim’s testimony differed from what was noted in the police report.
It did not matter that his young white female neighbor provided con-
flicting stories. To the authorities she was convincing. And so, on
the day of the scheduled trial, when this woman asked for money to
settle and dismiss the charges, he and his wife agreed. They had seen
enough and were not willing to risk that a jury of her peers would be
able to see beyond the black and white of the matter. A sense of false
naiveté disappeared on that Sunday night and in its place came the
reality that we cannot afford to remain ignorant about the intersec-
tion of past and present.
This is a shared story with unidentified others. Although the names
and locations in this story are intentionally omitted, the incident in
this narrative is real. It emerges from and is informed by an encoun-
ter that accurately reflects incidents in the lives of many American
This contemporary historically informed account illus-
trates, as sociologist Jonathan Markovitz explains, that “lynching
was always intended as a metaphor for, or a way to understand race
And in 1893, Ida B. Wells4
the simple word of any white person against a Negro is sufficient to
get a crowd of white men to lynch a Negro. Investigation as to the guilt
or innocence of the accused is never made. Under these conditions,
white men have only to blacken their faces, commit crimes against the
peace of the community, accuse some Negro, nor rest till he is killed
by a mob.5
Wells did not, however, use a fictionalized account of reality as a
source from which to expand her vision of American justice. Her late
nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critique of lynching and her
advice to black residents of Memphis in the aftermath of that city’s
March 1892 vigilante execution6
function as the starting point for
A cautionary note, however, is warranted. It is possible to study
lynching without examining Wells’s socio-ethical analysis of this
heinous act. However, in order to comprehend the relevance of her
recommendations to boycott, migrate, and write as constructive
resources for a Christian ethic of resistance to injustice in America
in the twenty-first century, it is essential to recognize that lynching
became a pivotal point of reference from which Wells interpreted the
grotesqueness of life in the United States that contradicted concep-
tions of the common good during this era.
the malicious taking of an alleged criminal’s life without
benefit of due process of law, has been a frequent occurrence in human
history. During the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century, mob
rule in America developed in a society that justified morally reprehen-
sible behavior through a selective interpretation of legislation which,
in turn, led to outbreaks of executions of terror. As a result, lynching,
clearly a violently destructive act, was perceived by many citizens as
acceptable. This heinous practice, dependent to a large degree on a
climate of fear, often accompanied by torture, functioned to preserve
a desired lifestyle contingent on the perpetuation of socially con-
structed divisions of race, gender, and social location. As Kate Tuttle
noted in a 2005 article on lynching,
[D]espite its stated justification—that lynching is merely a response to
crime—in most cases victims had not been convicted, or even charged
with a specific crime....Because of its unpredictability and extralegal
nature—black men knew that they could become victims at any time,
for any reason—lynching cast a shadow greater than its 3,386 known
black (mostly male) victims between 1882 and 1930. It is almost cer-
tain that these numbers are understated.2
Ultimately, as Arthur Raper writes, “[T]he logical issues of preju-
dice and lack of respect for law and personality, plus a sadistic desire
to participate in the excitement of mob trials and the brutalities of
mob torture and murder”3
had a dual function. On the one hand
vicious rituals of execution became a form of entertainment to justify
behavior that was informed and shaped by ignorance and hatred. At
the same time, horrific mutilations functioned as intimidating symbols
designed to control a labor pool of former slaves. Moreover, emancipa-
tion did not include any basis for resistance or redress. Images of spec-
tators gathered in a killing field to collect souvenirs from the lynched
6 Ethical Complications of Lynching
corpse or standing on the sidelines to watch an individual, particu-
larly black men and boys, hang and then be shot and/or dismembered,
portray what is sometimes referred to as “southern horrors.”
Although there is evidence that a review of the number of lynch-
ings in the former slave states during the period 1882–1962 may
lead to more reliable statistics, I accept the lynch statistics of African
Americans during the period 1892–1910 presented in selected works
of Ida B. Wells. What she offers is evidence to assess critically the
culture of terror whose continued existence was dependent upon the
ability to sustain some semblance of slavery, a “peculiar institution”4
upon which this nation was built.
The euphemism “peculiar institution” as a term for slavery and the
economic ramifications associated with the practice seem to explain
away the contradiction of legalized slavery in a country whose
Declaration of Independence states, “[W]e hold these truths to be
self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed
by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these
are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Consequently, lynching
perpetrators are required to justify their motives for engaging in such
dehumanizing conduct. At the same time, observers of “the strenu-
ous and bloody campaign by whites to elaborate and impose a racial
hierarchy upon people of color”5
are challenged to seek creative ways
to respond on behalf of those who are still affected by the atrocities
of oppressive systems sustained by deliberate injustice.
Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation “began investigating
what we now call hate crimes as far back as the early 1920s,”6
Civil Rights Division, the primary compiler of hate crime statistics,
did not begin publishing hate crime data until 1995. What then might
statistics from 1954, the year the Supreme Court ruled to desegregate
public schools, to 2004, the fifty-year anniversary of this landmark
decision, reveal about actions to advocate on behalf of justice? In par-
ticular, what insights might we glean about the nature and response
to crime and what that reaction signals about moral problems and
Christian responsibility? It is important to note that the graphing or
charting of this data will be of little value if unaccompanied by a
theological ethical analysis that explores the operative value systems
and the impact of the complicity of an economics of racism in society
that may distort notions of the common good.
Born into chattel slavery on July 16, 1862 on her white paternal
grandfather’s plantation in Holly Springs, Mississippi, to give voice to
oppressive conditions was not an option for Ida B. Wells. To engage
in the work of justice was an imperative that was not restricted by
the fact that her response to lynching, which evolved into an antith-
esis of the prevailing position, might elicit a negative response. Wells
assumed this position when the violation of civil rights, in the form
of lynching, affected her personally on March 9, 1892. According
to Wells, “[I]t was the murder of three young colored men...who
were known to be among the most honorable, reliable, worthy and
peaceable colored citizens of the community”7
that changed her
life. Although she was not in Memphis when the lynching occurred,
Wells’s description of the victims provides a contextual point of refer-
ence from which we can examine the nature of vigilante justice. She
informs us that these industrious young men, Thomas Moss, Calvin
McDowell, and Henry Stewart “owned and operated a grocery store
in a thickly populated suburb.” In addition to this entrepreneurial
endeavor, Moss, employed as a postal worker, was well known by
Wells. In fact, Wells informs us that this “exemplary young man and
his wife Betty” were her “best friends” and that she was godmother
to their “one little girl, Maurine.”8
This personal knowledge, coupled with a review of the allegations,
led Wells to question the validity of the charges. In addition, she could
not ignore collusive law enforcement practices evident in the case.
Moss’s lynching, and that of his colleagues, shocked Wells. She could
not rationalize this appalling incident. A week after this grisly inhu-
mane act of cruelty Wells offered an assessment in the Free Speech, a
Memphis newspaper that she co-owned.9
She concluded, “[T]here is
nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered
and without arms.” Wells recognized that confronting violence with
violence was not a viable option. After all, “the white mob could help
itself to ammunition without pay, but the order was rigidly enforced
against the selling of guns to Negroes.” Left without legal recourse,
Wells realized “there is therefore only one thing left that we can do;
save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives
and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and
murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.”10
respects, her decision to become a “crusader for justice,” with the
express intent to raise the consciousness level of anyone who would
engage in a constructive analysis of her message regarding the illegal
and heinous practices of mob rule and “lynch law,” was informed by
Wells’s faith in a God of justice.11
In this regard, she understood the
power of written and oral communication and recognized the poten-
tial of language to shape and dominate public opinion.12
8 Ethical Complications of Lynching
Described as one of “the most fearless and respected women in
the United States during a forty-year period”13
Wells was, according
to historian John Hope Franklin, perhaps “the first person to recite
the horrors of lynching in lurid detail.”14
Although her opposition
to lynching to a large extent was based on information from sec-
Wells “did not hesitate to go to the scene of racial
disturbances, including riots and lynchings, in order to get an accu-
rate picture of what actually occurred.”16
Her attention to detail and
considerable communication skills contributed to the fact that “few
defects in American society escaped her notice and her outrage.”17
Franklin further declares that “by the written and spoken word she
laid bare the barbarism and inhumanity of the rope and fagot, for
Ida B. Wells was determined that the entire world should know her
native land for what it really was.”18
He informs us that she “worked
equally hard in the effort to devise means to improve the lot of her
fellows” and was “in the forefront in promoting political activity
Franklin goes further to say that her “zeal and
energy were matched by her uncompromising and unequivocal stand
on every cause that she espoused. She did not hesitate to criticize
southern whites, or northern white liberals, or members of her own
race when she was convinced that their positions were not in the best
interests of all mankind.”20
This suggests that Wells possessed the
requisite skills and ability to contribute to the diverse communities
in which she participated. It also hints at her ability to understand
the challenges confronted by a people whose understanding of liberty
was typically defined on terms other than their own. In addition, reli-
ance on secondary information sources was not her preferred journal-
Franklin’s assessment of Wells is similar to that offered by Frederick
Douglass. In his October 25, 1892 letter used to introduce Wells’s
first two publications on the rituals of torture, Southern Horrors:
Lynch Law in All Its Phases and A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics
and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892–1893–
1894, Douglass informs us that Wells “deals with the facts with cool,
While his introductory letter to Wells’s work
acknowledges that others, himself included, contributed to the anti-
lynching campaign, Douglass is adamant that her account is the most
Like Frederick Douglass, James Elbert Cutler also acknowledged,
in chapter six of Lynch Law: An Investigation into the History of
Lynching in the United States, that others had written about lynching.
In his publication, Cutler also pointed out that comparative analysis
of lynching statistics warranted serious consideration. Of particular
interest is the remarkable similarity to Cutler’s proposed approach
to the method Wells employed in 1892. However, Cutler did not rec-
ognize Wells’s initiative to verify published data. Nor did he indi-
cate that he was aware of her efforts to travel to lynching sites in
order to validate the facts. The only reference that Cutler made to
Wells was her effort to obtain foreign endorsement in support of her
In spite of this omission or lack of recogni-
tion, this oversight does not negate Wells’s contribution. Rather, from
Cutler, an instructor in economics at Wellesley at the time his book
was published in 1905, we gain a greater appreciation for Wells’s
analytical ability, her interpretation of the facts, and her subsequent
Wells did not underestimate the power of persuasive discourse. She
used her investigative reporting skills to portray lynching vividly. She
also questioned the veracity of alleged causes that resulted in brutal
expressions of vigilante justice. In response to mob rule, she offered a
nonviolent corrective. She encouraged oppressed people to recognize
the value and power of fiscal solidarity, to consider the possibilities
of migration, and to tell their story in their own voice. In essence, she
realized that those most impacted by a culture of lynching possess
tremendous potential to effect change. From her, we discover new
insights into human virtue and how to evaluate responses to trag-
edy. One place we see this is in Wells’s proposal to implement fiscal
practices as strategies to present a minority viewpoint that, in turn,
necessitates a further examination of the relationship between con-
structions of power and concepts of justice.
Wells’s approach requires that we make a deliberate decision
regarding the distribution of personal resources. Her strategy also
suggests that we can employ economic boycotts and human capital to
minimize the effects of exploitative practices. While response to injus-
tice was mandatory and not optional for Wells, it should be noted that
silence is also a tactic that members of oppressed communities and
those who stand with them can implement. Despite the fact that this
is certainly a viable option to exercise, especially when it appears that
confrontation may lead to increased occurrences of violence, it does
not guarantee that silence will yield a peaceful or just outcome.
Often at possible risk to her own life, Wells described graphically
the lived experience of those subjected to lynch law. She understood
that her evaluation of contemporary manifestations of injustice was
10 Ethical Complications of Lynching
directly related to and informed by practices of a not-so-distant past.
She recognized that the exploitation of African Americans was per-
ceived as necessary by those who sought to sustain a prescribed social
code. Consequently, Wells’s advocacy on behalf of individuals sub-
jected to sadistic rituals of execution and mob rule during the years
1892 to 1910 is a legacy that can function as a model to promote
social justice in the face of contemporary manifestations of lynching
in the twenty-first century.
Written from a womanist ethical perspective, this text examines Ida
B. Wells’s critique of systemic violence from an historical perspective,
with specific attention to lynching, in order to evaluate contemporary
responses to social issues. Appropriated by Katie Geneva Cannon in
as a theological method, womanist ethics is a principled con-
struct that emerges from the lives of African-American women. An
interdisciplinary approach, womanist ethics examines socially con-
structed fragmentations, such as race, sexual orientation, and class,
as a means to appraise established theories, doctrines, and debates
of Eurocentric, male-normative ethics. Womanist discourse seeks,
through its emphasis on a commitment to the “survival and whole-
ness of all people,”24
to destroy oppressive hierarchies that function
on deliberative injustice.
Womanist scholars such as theologians Jacqueline Grant and
Delores Williams as well as ethicist Emilie Townes25
stress, in a man-
ner similar to Cannon, black women’s literary tradition, sociology
of black liberation, and black women’s historiography as sources for
constructive womanist ethics. To evaluate the importance of Wells’s
analysis of murderous vigilante justice, I modify the womanist his-
To accomplish this, I employ a systematic
interrogatory approach to Wells’s works. In addition, because of the
oral tradition that is prevalent in the culture that I share with individ-
uals who were legally denied the right to read and write, research is
not limited to books, articles, essays, and correspondence. Attention
is given, for example, to the power of lynching statistics27
to generate unarticulated questions, to influence historical
retelling, and to name present realities.
Between 1892 and 1900, Ida B. Wells published three works on
America’s lynching crisis. Each publication, Southern Horrors: Lynch
Law in All Its Phases (1892), A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and
Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892–1893–1894
(1895), and Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight
to the Death (1900) is, in many regards, a social ethical analysis
of domestic terror in America during the late nineteenth- and early
Wells’s critical assessment of what some scholars describe as
“America’s national crime,”30
is a framework against which I exam-
ine the historical implications associated with lynching. In addition,
her evaluation and subsequent alternative interpretation of specific
events also function to demythologize ostensibly “benign” racial
assumptions in order to broaden the ethical dialogue. When other
voices enter the moral discourse, Wells’s analysis indicates that alter-
native responses require that we reassess our understanding regarding
the relationship between Christian belief about love and Christian
behavior regarding justice. Thus, Wells’s works augment the corpus of
theological ethical resources that address insidious behavior in con-
The scholarly discussion of Wells’s commitment to social justice has
primarily focused on an analysis of her life work. Historical analy-
ses also provide extensive insight into Wells’s response to social injus-
tice. Mildred Thompson’s research provides a comprehensive view of
Wells’s involvement in sociopolitical activities and highlights the chal-
lenges that Wells encountered as a result of her commitment to lobby
for civil rights. Thompson does not, however, examine the broader
implications emerging from a minority perspective that contradicts a
normative depiction of American justice.31
My research is enriched by
intellectual projects that explore Wells’s works from linguistics and
historical perspectives as well as literature and religious viewpoints.32
From a theological ethical perspective, Emilie Maureen Townes,
who earned her doctorate from the joint Garrett-Evangelical
Theological Seminary/Northwestern University Program in Religious
and Theological Studies, presents a compelling case that Wells’s
stance on liberation, reconciliation, suffering, and obedience func-
tions as a framework to outline a contemporary womanist Christian
The first scholar of religion to write about Wells,
Townes’s 1989 dissertation, “The Social and Moral Perspectives of
Ida B. Wells-Barnett as Resources for a Contemporary Afro-Feminist
Christian Social Ethic” and published in 1993 as Womanist Justice,
Womanist Hope, explores the social and moral spheres of African-
American women in the nineteenth century through Wells’s life and
work with specific emphasis on Wells’s strong commitment to social
justice and to the church as an active churchwoman.
While Wells’s way of thinking about leadership is the principal
criterion for Townes’s proposed Christian social ethic, in this book
12 Ethical Complications of Lynching
I seek to demonstrate that a change of perspective regarding sociocul-
tural location can subsequently influence approaches to address injus-
tice. To address inconsistencies and inequities in American society,
Wells provided a cultural interpretation that would later describe the
response to tyranny in America during the 1960s civil rights era. That
is, she asserted that the collective strength of African Americans to
recognize the power represented by the effective deployment of econo-
mies of scale might be strategically employed to produce a “bloodless
revolution.” At issue is how, through a theological ethical analysis,
to understand the diverse ways in which language can be used stra-
tegically to promote change in order to determine the broader moral
implications associated with lynching and its residual effects.
My research affirms that Wells’s recommendations were specific
suggestions that required, in some cases, geographical relocation. At
the same time, I explore the metaphorical connotations that arise when
new descriptors, which I refer to as re-orientation, re-evaluation, and
re-interpretation, are understood from two perspectives. On the one
hand, these designators characterize the significance of empowerment,
identity, and agency contained in her recommendation to black resi-
dents of Memphis, following that city’s first lynching since the Civil
War, to boycott, migrate, and write. On the other hand, this proposed
way of understanding also allows us to recognize that Wells’s sug-
gestions can function as a guide to analyze motives and subsequent
actions. Following this line of thinking, Ida B. Wells’s ethical interro-
gation of the public sphere in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth
centuries functions as the basis from which to construct a Christian
ethic of resistance to identify, name, and confront contemporary forms
of injustice in America in the twenty-first century. Most importantly,
I address the need for a method that lends itself to a theological ethi-
cal analysis that takes into consideration not just the act of lynching
but that which allows the use of mob violence to simulate power. In
this regard, Wells’s sociocultural critique serves as a guide to facilitate
an examination that explores the correlation between murders com-
mitted by mobs and societal constructions based on race, gender, and
class. In addition, a review of Wells’s works requires that we identify
and name deceptive expressions of authority in order to offer an alter-
native response to strategies employed to create a culture of fear.
Attention is also given to Wells’s ethical interrogation of America’s
infatuation with terror. She encouraged oppressed people and those
who advocate on their behalf to work actively for justice. To abolish
a pervasive and semiofficial institution, she offered a set of relevant
tools that can be employed to address current issues confronting mar-
ginalized people. The tools that she recommended to “effectually
stamp out lynch law, that last relic of barbarism and slavery, are boy-
cott, emigration, and exposure in the press, and a combination of all
Under consideration in my work is not just Wells’s
critique of lynching in the United States from 1892 to 1910 but also
factors that preceded and subsequently allowed the use of mob vio-
lence to create an impression of power. I analyze correlations between
unmitigated racial violence and maintenance of social stratifications
based on exploitation. To do this I situate Wells’s assessment of the
nature of public life, freedom, and democracy within the broader
scheme of her understanding of self and world. Finally, the signifi-
cance of Wells’s 1892 recommendation to Memphis’s black residents
is evaluated for its effectiveness to function as criterion for developing
a twenty-first-century Christian ethic of resistance.
Wells’s work illustrates the importance of examining the correla-
tions between social concepts and moral decision making. She offered
some practical options that could be implemented “to prevent lynch-
ing, to thwart anarchy and promote law and order throughout our
She encouraged people to (1) share with others her alternative
presentation of the facts; (2) encourage churches and other religious
organizations with which they were affiliated to communicate to their
constituents that they denounce lynchings; and (3) encourage busi-
nesses not to operate in locales that actively or passively supported
When Wells realized the influence she possessed to make a differ-
ence, she made a conscious decision to use writing and public speak-
ing to participate in a reordering of society. That is, she exercised
agency as an initial act of resistance that was accompanied by a com-
mitment to name and then to assess the presenting moral problem,
in this case lynching. One approach extended to us is to exhaust, as
thoroughly as possible, any and all questions that enable us to begin
to “peel back the layers” in order to more clearly understand a moral
issue. The actualization, perhaps perceived by some as a response to a
system of beliefs, is, in essence, an act of reconciliation that enables us
to begin to envision things as they should be and not as they are.
A challenge, though, is often how to discover or recover sources and
resources that support the analysis of an alternative depiction of real-
ity. From Wells we discern that a Christian ethic of resistance points
to the importance of excavating hidden treasures that provide insight
into survival techniques that emerge from oppressive situations. If we
14 Ethical Complications of Lynching
are to articulate a life-affirming counter-perspective that facilitates
movement toward eradicating mistakes of the past, we must become
proficient in identifying sources designed to promote justice. For this
reason, we must learn how to comb library stacks. Once we are in the
library stacks, we must allot time to look at titles and to peruse books
that are shelved on racks immediately adjacent to an identified text.
Often we will discover relevant sources that were not included in our
initial query. Attention to details, such as the publisher and jacket
endorsements, may also provide additional insight about a specific
While it is a good practice to know how to retrieve books from
the shelves, it is equally important to have a broad understanding of
the resources at a particular institution. For example, archived docu-
ments and rare book collections can, in some cases, function as a
clue to an institution’s position on justice. In other instances these
papers and often limited volumes of seminal works provide additional
information on previously unidentified primary sources. In addition,
because of the relatively short distribution life of publications (in
many instances books are out of print in less than five years), discus-
sions with resource librarians are almost essential. These conversa-
tions, combined with research tutorials, can lend themselves to new
discoveries of periodicals, recent and / or pending publications, reli-
able Internet sites, and best research practices.
In addition to learning how to comb library stacks, we must read
newspaper articles and periodical journals on microfiche if we are
to assess minority perspectives regarding justice. Since many black-
owned newspapers established during the middle nineteenth- to the
middle twentieth centuries are no longer operational, this is a labori-
ous but necessary task not to mention a valuable option to engage
these primary sources. Many articles archived in repositories, such as
The Moorland Spingarn Library at Howard University, The Library
of Congress, and The Schomburg Library, are preserved on micro-
fiche. When reading these articles, attention should be given to those
who authored the article or editorial. This is one way to determine
how social location and factors such as race and gender may have
impacted the message. Next, consideration must be given to the
intended audience. We want to know to whom the author was speak-
ing and why in order to determine a possible motive or maybe to
determine whether there were other factors that are not necessarily
explicit that motivated the writer to address a specific issue. At the
same time, we list names, dates, and places referenced in the article
in order to determine what additional sources might indicate about
positions on a specific issue.
Not only must we learn how to comb library stacks and read micro-
fiche documents, we must also develop a skill to listen to and docu-
ment oral histories. This is an art that often demands that the inquirer
refrain from interrupting the speaker either to interject an opinion,
to raise a question, or to clarify a statement. Rather, the purpose of
learning to listen to narratives that have not been published is to deter-
mine how another version of a shared story informs participation in
acts of justice. Take for instance, various accounts offered by victims
of the 2006 natural disaster that virtually demolished New Orleans.
In a number of documentaries on Hurricane Katrina36
the stories of
displaced people give us some clues to disparities at local, state, and
national levels that drastically shape a commitment to justice. The
manner in which individuals were evacuated is only one example of
many that point to issues of visible and invisible poverty as a factor
that sometimes determines moral response. Equally important to lis-
tening to unfolding history, it still matters very much how we listen to
history past. Thus, time must be devoted to hearing stories of former
slaves, recorded in the early twentieth century as part of a federal gov-
tapes of 1960s civil rights workers, and songs of
civil rights activists, such as Sweet Honey in the Rock, as examples of
the vast resources that offer clues to constructing a just society.
Print sources shelved in the library or stored on microfiche as well
as oral histories are often narratives or personal perspectives that
point to a larger story. Thus, it is important that we learn to inter-
pret statistical data as one way to become adept in raising relevant
questions. What I am suggesting is that we must learn how to look
beyond the numbers in order to determine how the data functions. For
example, as discussed earlier, Wells used lynch statistics collected and
published by major Euro-American-owned newspapers but drew sig-
nificantly different conclusions that subsequently served as a basis for
her ethical analysis of the response to lynching. Just as Wells learned
to read the numbers as a way to interpret the devastating effect of
America’s almost insatiable thirst for blood-letting, so too must we
learn to interpret data if we are to be justice advocates. One way to do
this work of interpretation is to inquire about the source of the data.
For instance, who collected and compiled it, who published it, when
and where was it published, how accessible is the information, is the
data verifiable and, if so, by what methods, what are prevailing and
counter-perspectives about the data, what major issue or issues do the
16 Ethical Complications of Lynching
statistics address, who stands to benefit, and how, if justice is not a
Wells’s deconstructive analysis of the excuses used to justify lynch-
ing illustrates the vast resources from which we can engage in ethical
conversations in the public sphere about experiences in the everyday-
ness of life and its often accompanying disparities that, lamentably,
often enable us to name accurately the madness that is denied by its
architects. Last, but not least, we must search in familiar and unfamil-
iar sources for insight and direction. We must learn to comb electronic
libraries, for example Questia.com, to read footnotes for additional
clues about an issue or as a lead to track down a primary source from
which to gain additional insight and direction. In addition, since dis-
tance learning is quickly becoming a significant aspect of educational
delivery, consideration must be given to how to maintain data integ-
rity in chat rooms and other modalities that support technological
interaction. It is extremely important though that we become familiar
with the criteria by which online resources are evaluated within the
academic community. As a rule, if users can modify information, as
allowed by some open source search engines, safeguards are not in
place to guarantee that references can be verified at some point in the
future. One way to determine the reliability of websites is to periodi-
cally peruse publications, such as The Chronicle of Higher Education,
for articles on pedagogical approaches that address the use of technol-
ogy in research and teaching. Finally, we should read opposing views
as counterpositions often enable us to critique our claims concerning
justice issues with greater clarity.
Comprised of four parts, the first part is a contextual analysis
of factors that influenced Wells’s commitment to confront injustice.
This background information serves two purposes. First, it situ-
ates Wells within her sociohistorical context. At the same time, we
can, from this biographical data, explicate some of the events that
would subsequently inform Wells’s ethical interrogation of the pub-
lic sphere and juxtapose her emerging ethic of resistance with the
death-dealing nature of lynching reflective of the dominant culture.
In the second part, Wells’s self-identification as a journalist serves as
a lens to examine some of the ways in which lynching shaped public
opinion. Here, I draw on the research of selected scholars, such as
historians W. Fitzhugh Brundage and Philip Dray,38
outside the theo-
logical academy, to emphasize the consequential impact of racially
motivated mob executions on the African-American community.
Next, I employ a womanist ethical framework39
to examine lynching
through the intricately connected dynamics of race, gender, and class.
In this section, I evaluate the historical and contemporary implica-
tions associated with these socially constructed fragmentations for
both the academy and the broader society as a way to raise awareness
about the subtleness that often characterizes the manner in which
domestically sanctioned forms of terror are disguised as practices that
promote the common good. In the final part, I evaluate the criteria for
developing a guide for a Christian ethic of resistance in the twenty-
first century based on evidence contained in Wells’s works.
Wells’s advice is not limited to physical movement. But in order
to determine how her specific recommendations to boycott, migrate,
and write can function as constructive resources to address contem-
porary forms of injustice, we must consider the relevance of her social
critique in relation to the symbolic meaning associated with a collec-
tive effort to employ strategies that encourage collaborative financial
sanctions, geographical relocation, and a retelling of events. I stress,
in particular, that both an individual and communal-sense-of-self
determines, to a large extent, moral response. I make many sugges-
tions that Wells’s ability to explain social disparities and inequities
serve as a reminder that justice in America is an historical struggle
with contemporary implications. Her analysis of lynchings illustrates
that knowledge of past events is an important aspect of theological
ethical inquiry. More importantly, she demonstrates that historical
remembrance and retelling can be employed as a resource to ana-
lyze present-day realities. As Wells’s findings on lynching make clear,
we can employ this intentional act of reframing narratives to con-
struct future possibilities to minimize the perpetuation of oppressive
Identity and Formation: Character
Development and the Shaping
of a “Crusader for Justice”
To self-name is to recognize that agency empowers us to effect change, to tell our
stories and to expand our canon.
—Angela D. Sims
Accounts of enslaved, and subsequently emancipated, peoples of
the African Diaspora are neither objective nor are they value free.
On the contrary, narratives by and about bondspersons and freed-
persons of color are written from a specific viewpoint, to a particu-
lar audience, and for a precise purpose. For example, in response
to a question regarding her role as an anti-lynching spokesperson,
Ida B. Wells stated that she wrote her autobiography, Crusade for
Justice, in order to document her participation in the making and
shaping of history. Since history can provide insight into human
behavior, knowledge gaps about specific persons or events can often
be addressed when we situate them in a broader context. One of
the benefits associated with contextual historiography1
is the abil-
ity to comprehend more fully, or at least to engage our questions in
a more informed manner as we consider the ways in which culture
20 Ethical Complications of Lynching
influences our sense of justice. I find the work of Stephen B. Bevans
helpful in this regard.
In Models of Contextual Theology,2
Bevans, professor of mission
and culture at Catholic Theological Union, emphasizes the role of
culture in theological discourse. He suggests that culture provides a
lens through which we can make sense of the Christian faith. But he
also recognizes that culture, the communication of meaning, can be
perceived from two distinctively different perspectives. Bevans points
out that there is both a classicist and an empiricist understanding of
culture. From the classicist viewpoint, that which determines mean-
ing and value is defined as normative, universal, and unchanging.
Proponents of this thought contend that this concept of culture is
achieved via and reflective of a western tradition. Although Bevans is
not explicit, it should be noted that the classicist position is reflective
of an interlocking cycle of oppression based on multiple construc-
tions of fragmentations. In other words, it is inferred that other cul-
tures possess similar cultural ideations, performances, and material
manifestations that will, at some point, be validated as normative.
From that point of view, non-western cultures are always striving to
subscribe to a predetermined alien standard. Empiricists, on the other
hand, offer a counter-perspective. They contend, and I concur, that
culture is not normative. Rather, it is contextual and dynamic and
therefore not universal. In order to determine operative values and
meanings, it is imperative to interpret the signs that are specific to a
particular context based on criteria that reflect a local theology ver-
sus a universally constructed concept of theology.
Wells’s sense of personhood was informed by both the historical
reality of life in the United States for African Americans during the
first five decades following the abolition of chattel slavery and con-
cepts of identity within the black community.3
In order to identify
some factors that influenced Wells’s understanding of self, as evi-
denced by her sense of justice, prior to emerging as a leading anti-
lynching spokesperson in 1892, consideration is given to (1) the black
slave family’s moral situation in Mississippi during the Civil War,4
(2) the moral situation of the black family during Reconstruction,5
(3) a head of household’s response to the 1878 yellow fever epidemic.
Black Slave Family’s Moral Situation in
Mississippi during the Civil War
The black family, while it had no legal existence in slavery, was in
actuality one of the most important survival mechanisms for the slave.1
Perhaps it was with this awareness that Elizabeth Warrenton Wells and
James Wells Sr.2
chose to marry.3
By the time the Civil War started,
“the white population in 1860 was in the minority”4
social, economic, and political institutions were hopelessly entangled
in the web of slavery. An increasing dependence on staple agriculture
created a slave-based cotton culture that affected all of the state’s white
residents to one degree or another.”5
When Ida B. Wells, the oldest6
Elizabeth and James Wells’s eight children, was born in Holly Springs,
Mississippi, on July 16, 1862 the nation was in the second year of
a civil war. At the time of Wells’s birth, “Holly Springs was one of
Mississippi’s most vibrant towns.”7
But within three months after her
birth, in “October 1862, General John C. Pemberton8
ordered the army
to evacuate Holly Springs and the Confederates moved south through
Oxford and Water Valley to Grenada. As planned, Ulysses S. Grant9
also moved south in pursuit. He occupied Holly Springs and there
established a major supply depot designed to fuel his move into central
Within approximately five months of Wells’s birth, in
December 1862, “the Southerners drove the federal cavalry away and
afterwards Grant halted his advance to redeploy some of his men. The
federal delay proved significant and made Holly Springs the focal point
of what would be remembered as the greatest Confederate victory in
Mississippi during the war years.”11
Furthermore, the Emancipation
Proclamation that Abraham Lincoln issued on January 1, 1863 to free
slaves in the Confederate states was ignored in Mississippi.
22 Ethical Complications of Lynching
Much of Mississippi embraced the ultimate act of political defiance
in 1861, and many of its citizens turned their backs on the nation of
This suggests that not all white Mississippians supported
the decision to withdraw from the Union. This minority view should
not, however, be misconstrued to suggest that it reflected an antislav-
ery position. Quite the contrary, for as Wynne’s research indicates,
“while slavery became an issue to be debated, and to many an institu-
tion to be defended with greater ferocity as time wore on, withdrawal
from the Union was a reckless alternative by most Mississippi com-
munities for most of the antebellum period.”13
Likewise the perpetu-
ation of chattel slavery, whose proponents’ economic well-being the
Civil War jeopardized, remained dependent upon methods of control
designed to govern all aspects of slave life.
It is widely acknowledged that “southern whites were brought up
to believe that slaves were something less than human, that they were
property unable to care for themselves without close supervision.”14
Whether slaves were subjected to physical or mental forms of pun-
ishments, slavery as a system of domination was characterized by
violence. Consequently, the viability of this institution was contin-
gent on compliance. In order to ensure minimum disruptions to this
intentional method of control, slave proponents employed a number
of schemes, from the lash to the auction block, to foster a sense of
powerlessness among African Americans. Yet, from Wells’s limited
knowledge about her parents’ experience as slaves, we can construct
a snapshot to examine aspects of the black slave family’s moral situ-
ation during the Civil War. Most importantly, we can consider how
Wells’s family developed survival strategies that would subsequently
influence the manner in which she responded to moral dilemmas.
While Wells, regrettably, did not provide extensive details about her
family’s life in Mississippi during the Civil War, we do know that her
“father was the son of his master, who owned a plantation in Tippah
County, Mississippi, and one of his slave women, Peggy.15
had no children by his wife, ‘Miss Polly,’ and my father grew up on the
plantation, the companion and comfort of his old age.”16
ments provide tremendous insight about the intricacies of the slave
family’s moral situation. From these two sentences we discover that
miscegenation complicated Wells’s family of origin’s life.
Wells did indicate that when her father “was eighteen years old,
his father took him to Holly Springs and apprenticed him to learn the
carpenter’s trade, which he expected him to use on the plantation.”17
From this recollection we can question Wells’s paternal grandfather’s
Black Slave Family’s Moral Situation 23
motives and what this action might connote about his intention to
free his son. Regardless of the reasons associated with this decision
to outsource his son, while acquiring the skills to become an artisan,
James Wells met his wife. According to Wells, her mother “was cook
to old man Bolling, the contractor and builder to whom my father was
When war erupted in the United States two years later, we do not
know why James and Elizabeth did not explore other options. For “by
the final months of 1863, thousands of slaves had run away as federal
troops moved through the Confederacy.”19
Wells’s parents were not
among this group. In addition, we do not know whether their decision
to remain in Holly Springs during the Civil War could be attributed
to the fact that they had an infant or whether leaving would result in
more than a ten-mile separation from other family members.
Wells’s recollection of her mother’s experience of life within “the
favorite institution of the South”20
differs, at least on the surface,
from that of Wells’s father. Contrary to James Wells’s depiction of
an “idyllic childhood,”21
Wells said that her mother “was born in
Virginia and was one of ten children. She and two sisters were sold
to slave traders when young, and were taken to Mississippi and sold
In order to understand the complexities of the black slave
family’s ethical predicament in Mississippi during slavery, consid-
eration must be given to intent. For instance, we know that Wells’s
father “was never whipped or put on the auction block, and he knew
little of the cruelties of slavery.”23
However, as I discuss later, James
Wells remembered that his mother was beaten. We are not able to
ascertain, however, whether he was branded or whether he witnessed
other slaves being mistreated.
It is quite possible that the lash, next to separating families, was
one of the most visible signs of injustice during slavery and its histori-
cal symbolism should never be minimized. But of equal importance
are the invisible wounds of slavery to the mind, heart, and soul that
remain permanently etched into the psyche of those who endured
and those who continue to live with the consequences of American
chattel slavery. Thus, it is important that we recognize that the fact
that James Wells was his father’s property and not a free-person of
color is, in itself, indicative of the mental and emotional cruelties of
And even though James Wells was not actually whipped, his mother
was subjected to physical torture. In a conversation she overheard as
a child between her father and his mother, Wells recalled that their
24 Ethical Complications of Lynching
exchange about their former slave mistress revealed that James Wells
had indirectly experienced the effects of the lash. Because of their
slave mistress’ treatment toward his mother, James Wells told his
mother he would always remember how their slave mistress had her
“stripped and whipped the day after the old man died.”24
We do not
have evidence to determine whether this statement demonstrates that
an agreement in some form existed between Mr. Wells and his wife.
For example, we do not know whether Mr. Wells died prior to the
start of the Civil War or after Mississippi’s constitutional convention
voted to abolish slavery by a count of 87 to 11.25
In addition, we do
not have any information that would give us insight into the dynamics
of Wells’s grandmother’s interaction with her slave owners after the
birth of her son.
What we do know, as Blassingame emphasizes, is that “miscegena-
tion often led to complications in the South,” and “southern white
women apparently believed that they suffered most from the effects
If this were the case, perhaps Polly Wells’s hus-
band’s death was the first opportunity that she had to express her
frustration over his sexual infidelity. While we do not know how she
handled this marital dilemma while he was alive, it is unfortunate
that she took her anger out on another woman who, like herself, was
technically Mr. Wells’s property. What we do know is that “the shock
of seeing their parents flogged was an early reminder to many black
children of what slavery was,”27
and James Wells never forgot the
abuse that his mother endured.
Like her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Wells also experienced the sting
of the lash. While we do not know by whom or why she was whipped,
Wells remembered that her mother “used to tell us children how she
had been beaten by slave owners and the hard times she had as a
While autonomy, as James Childress explains, “does not neces-
sarily imply that an individual’s life plan is created by that person de
novo, it does suggest that the individual has adopted, usually reflec-
tively and critically, a life plan as his or her own even if it was drawn
from a community and a tradition.”29
This definition raises concerns
about whether slaves were in a position to make independent deci-
sions. Since Childress claims that an “essential condition is that the
agent’s decisions and actions not be substantially controlled by others,”
his explanation of the term does not take into consideration coping
strategies employed by oppressed populations that can and should be
viewed as autonomous actions. For example, adult slaves understood
Black Slave Family’s Moral Situation 25
that failure to train their children on rules governing interaction with
whites could result in some form of punishment. In other words, as
Blassingame explains, “since slave parents were primarily responsible
for training their children, they could cushion the shock of bondage
for them, help them to understand their situation, teach them values
different from those their masters tried to instill in them, and give
them a referent for self-esteem other than their master.”30
according to Blassingame, “the lessons the slave child learned about
conformity were complex and contradictory. Recognizing the over-
whelming power of the whites, parents taught children obedience as a
means of avoiding pain, suffering, and death. At the same time, they
did not teach unconditional submission.”31
It is important, then, that we realize, as Blassingame so emphati-
cally reminds us, that the slave “family was...an important survival
With this understanding, it is possible to envision that
when Wells reflected on the “stony road” that her family members
“trod,” she gained a better appreciation for autonomy as an act of
adaptability that enabled slaves to create a counterreality. Reflecting
on her father and paternal grandmother’s conversation, Wells asserted
“I have never forgotten those words. Since I have grown old enough
to understand I cannot help but feel what an insight to slavery they
When she thought about conditions associated with slavery,
America’s peculiar institution, Wells discovered that in spite of inhu-
mane conditions her parents demonstrated a remarkable ability
to foster a sense of hope that was in stark contrast to their actual
Freed-Person of Color’s Moral Situation in
Mississippi during Reconstruction
When Mississippi voted to abolish slavery in 1865 “times were
especially tough for Mississippi’s newly freed slaves.”1
decision to retain its Confederacy status2
signaled that the end of
the Civil War was not, however, the end of oppressive conditions
for blacks. In a move that would have devastating consequences for
freed-persons of color, Mississippi adopted black codes3
African Americans’ participation in the state’s civic life. The adoption
of these codes by most southern states was one way to “forecast, to a
remarkable degree, the future attitude of former Confederates toward
the place of blacks in the South and in American life,”4
torian John Hope Franklin. Almost as a symbol of both allegiance
to southern traditions and defiance of the Union’s military victory,
these policies—implemented to control a recently emancipated labor
pool—were essentially “systems of peonage or apprenticeship resem-
as historian C. Vann Woodward noted. W. E. B. Du
Bois, in his extensive research on Black Reconstruction in America
1860–1880, emphasized that black codes were a vehicle by which
“Mississippi simply reenacted her slave code.”6
After all, as Franklin
pointed out, “most of the laws employed such terms as ‘master’ and
‘servant’ and clearly implied a distinction that consigned blacks to a
hopeless inferior status.”7
Given the climate in post–Civil War Mississippi, it is now generally
acknowledged that emancipation did not guarantee that basic require-
ments, such as employment and housing, would be readily accessible
to former slaves. Wynne recounts that “from 1865 to 1867, federal
troops were ordered to look out for the physical safety of the former
28 Ethical Complications of Lynching
slaves, but they were also told not to interfere to any great degree with
Mississippi’s civilian authorities.” Because of this stance, “federal offi-
cials in Mississippi did little to counter the laws restricting freedmen
and, despite subsequent claims to the contrary, military and civilian
authorities in the state generally coexisted peacefully.”8
this collusion of northern and southern forces, many freed-persons
of color found themselves in situations that continued to mirror for-
mer master-slave relationships. Consequently, the Union’s inability to
mitigate the adverse affect of the war’s outcome on southern blacks
contributed to acts of gross negligence.
John Hope Franklin summarized the situation like this, “... the
enactment of these black codes confirmed the North’s worst fears.
Reformers believed that the former Confederates were attempting
to re-establish slavery.”9
The black codes demonstrated southern
whites’ resolve to maintain their cultural identity. Yet, in spite of
the fact that “the violence directed against blacks on almost every
hand indicated how determined the former Confederates were to
maintain this white supremacy,”10
African Americans employed
strategies to counter the effect of black codes. The manner in which
blacks viewed politics, education, and religion as avenues to respond
to challenges associated with their new legal classification of citi-
zen provides insight into the moral situation of freed-persons during
When the war ended, three-year-old Ida and her parents remained
in Holly Springs. As Jacqueline Jones noted in her study, freed-persons
of color often worked under a contract system that did not guaran-
tee that they would be compensated for services provided.12
of the fact that “times were especially tough for Mississippi’s newly
it is possible to attribute Wells’s parents’ decision
not to relocate in part to an employment invitation extended by the
man to whom her father was apprenticed in 1858 and for whom her
mother cooked. Another reason that her parents may have remained
in Holly Springs is because of its close proximity to relatives, espe-
cially to Wells’s paternal grandmother who lived about forty miles
from them in Tippah County. About “Miss Peggy,” Wells tells us that
“she and her husband owned and tilled many acres of land and every
fall brought their cotton and corn to market.”14
Even though Wells
does not tell us how or when they acquired their property, the fact
that Wells’s paternal grandmother was not a sharecropper is note-
worthy since “a significant change in land ownership would not be
in the rural South.
Freed-Person of Color’s Moral Situation 29
Regrettably the absence of any mention about the stipulations asso-
ciated with the terms of agreement under which James Wells worked
makes it difficult to determine the exact conditions of his employ-
ment. Foner does, however, explain that “the postwar labor short-
age, indeed, gave former slaves considerable bargaining power,”16
at least, to a certain extent, freed-persons with nonagrarian skills,
such as James Wells. What Wells shares is that “... after the war
was over Mr. Bolling urged his able young apprentice to remain with
him. He did so until election time.”17
While we cannot determine the
date from the aforementioned statements, an editorial footnote pro-
vided by Alfreda Duster suggests that this critical incident occurred
“sometime late in 1867, when Negroes in Mississippi were given the
In this brief description, references to professional competence
and political awareness are two significant indicators that provide
additional insight about the moral situation of freed-persons of color
in Mississippi during Reconstruction. Described as a competent car-
penter, James Wells was about twenty-seven when Congress declared
that “the southern states must ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and
adopt new constitutions embodying the principle of manhood suf-
frage without regard to race.”19
Wells is very clear about two things:
the reason her father was fired and the consequences associated with
his employer’s decision. She stated that her father’s employment was
terminated because “Mr. Bolling wanted him to vote the Democratic
ticket, which he refused to do.”20
When James Wells voted in 1867, “there were few, if any, blacks
who had previously voted in a Southern state.”21
Franklin points out
that “most blacks had little knowledge of governmental machinery,
but they manifested a strong desire to learn and participate. They had
to overcome fears of reenslavement and reprisals by their employers
and former owners for assuming their new roles as citizens.”22
a result of his act of agency, Duster reports that Wells noted that
when her father “returned from voting he found the shop locked.
Jim Wells said nothing to anyone, but went downtown, bought
a new set of tools, and went across the street and rented another
house. When Mr. Bolling returned he found he had lost a work-
man and a tenant, for already Wells had moved his family off the
Wells was approximately five years old when her
father made this series of independent decisions. Thus, we can only
speculate that someone told her about this defining moment in her
family’s life. Regardless of how she acquired this information, her
30 Ethical Complications of Lynching
father’s actions illustrate that Reconstruction was a time of political
and social reidentification.
During a period when “Negroes were not aggressive in pressing
Wells’s description of what occurred as a result of her
father’s decisive action demonstrates that James Wells was not intimi-
dated by his employer. At the same time, noncompliance to prevailing
customs came, sometimes, at a tremendous cost. Despite the fact that
Wells’s father had financial means, a marketable skill, and housing
options, his interest in politics was not without risk of potential physi-
cal harm to himself and possibly to his family. For instance, Wells
said that, “long before she knew what they meant” she “heard the
words Ku Klux Klan...and knew dimly that it meant something fear-
ful, by the anxious way my mother walked the floor at night when my
father was out to a political meeting.”25
Established in Tennessee in 1865, the Ku Klux Klan26
itself as an institution of chivalry, humanity, mercy, and patriotism.
In actuality it was a domestic terrorist organization with the express
intent to “maintain and re-establish white supremacy in the South”
through “every kind of intimidation and violence against blacks and
By contrast, Wells’s parents did not succumb to
fear. Instead, although gender equality was still a point of contention
in American society, a freed-person of color’s decision to participate
in the political process symbolized a major aspect of democracy.
While Wells characterized her father as civic minded, she described
her mother as “a deeply religious woman,” actively engaged in the life
of her children, who “won the prize for regular attendance at Sunday
Religion played a major role in southern reconstruction.
To increase its presence among recently freed-persons of color, Sally
G. McMillen’s research confirms that “northern missionary orga-
nizations and churches became actively involved in organizing and
supporting hundreds of black Sunday schools.” She notes that “as
black and white missionaries tried to assist former slaves, competi-
tion grew rapidly.” According to McMillen, “beyond teaching read-
ing and exposing children to the Bible, missionary societies supported
schools by donating money, Bibles, books, lesson plans, and periodi-
cals, and by assisting officers and teachers as they set about their
work.” Furthermore, “by 1872, white northern Methodists had more
than seventy-five missionaries working in southern states, with many
focusing on African Americans.”29
Although we do not have details on factors that influenced Elizabeth
Wells’s concept of parenting, Wells shared that her mother “brought
Freed-Person of Color’s Moral Situation 31
us up with a strict discipline that many mothers who have had edu-
cational advantages have not exceeded.”30
Although the slave auction
block had severed Elizabeth Wells’s relationship with her biological
mother, Wells said that her mother “taught us how to do the work of
the home—each had a regular task besides schoolwork, and I often
compare her work in training her children to that of other women
who had not her handicaps.”31
Wells also stated that her parents expected their children “to go
to school and learn all we could.”32
While Wells could not “remem-
ber when or where she started school,”33
her “earliest recollections
are of reading the newspaper to my father and an admiring group of
Regrettably, it cannot be concluded from her memoir
whether or not her father was literate, that is able to read and/or write.
Autobiographical references do, however, indicate that Elizabeth
Wells accompanied her children to school until she acquired the skills
that enabled her to read the Bible. At a time when it was no longer
illegal for blacks to read and to write, each of Wells’s parents, in their
own way, stressed the importance of education.
During Reconstruction, schools, now commonly referred to as
Historically Black Colleges and Universities,35
throughout the South to address the educational needs of former
slaves. Some were designated land-grant institutions while others
were founded by organizations, such as the Freedmen’s Aid Society
of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC),36
or a combination thereof. In his study of religious
reconstruction in Georgia and Tennessee during the last two years
of the Civil War through the end of Federal Reconstruction in 1877,
Daniel W. Stowell38
examines approaches employed by black and
white Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians to address the chal-
lenges associated with religious reconstruction. His research reveals
that each of these denominations took an integrated approach to edu-
cational and missionary endeavors. Stowell also mentions that “in
its first year of operations in the South, the Freedmen’s Aid Society
of the MEC began schools in nine southern states.”39
And as Wells
mentioned, “the Freedmen’s Aid had established [in 1866] one of its
schools in our town—it was called Shaw University then, but is now
According to Ralph S. Morrow, the Freedmen’s Aid Society based
its mission and vision on the premise that “the black man had to lift
his own race” and “focused its attention on professional training,
especially for the ministry and teaching.”41
To accomplish its primary
32 Ethical Complications of Lynching
objectives, “Methodist schools were designed as factories to ham-
mer out the future leaders of the freedmen.”42
Founded by Rev. A. C.
McDonald, a minister from the North, to address the educational
needs of former slaves, Rust College provided instruction at all lev-
els and grades, including the basic elementary subjects. During its
initial year of operation, classes for the oldest of eleven historically
black United Methodist-related colleges and universities were held at
Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church in Holly Springs.
On the life of the institution that she attended until 1878, Wells
did not mention the fact that Richard Rust worked with Rev. Moses
Adams, an African-American minister in Holly Springs. Instead,
she recounted that “the bishops I had known were scholarly, saintly
men in the Methodist Episcopal Church and most of the pastors we
had were the same. All my teachers had been the consecrated white
men and women from the North who came into the South to teach
immediately after the end of the war.”43
Without further comment,
Wells’s recollection corroborates Richard Rust’s vow that “the South
would be evangelized” by individuals who were “of single purpose,
of one work, whose souls were on fire.”44
Rust stressed that these
positions would only be filled by individuals who were “known to
be...uncompromising, anti-slavery, loyal men.”45
In his research on postsecondary education, Christopher J. Lucas
devotes a chapter to the evolution of black colleges. His historical
synopsis, which includes evidence dating back to rare instances of
blacks earning undergraduate degrees from white colleges in the early
1800s, confirms that “supporters of black schools and colleges shared
in common an ardent faith in the power of newly emancipated blacks
to move into the mainstream of American society if they were afforded
opportunities to do so. Black Americans, they argued, should be free
to do and become what they chose, limited only by the strength of
their own endeavors.”46
In light of the number of schools begun by the
Freedmen’s Aid Society and other organizations we should acknowl-
edge the validity of the Society’s claim that it, “in connection with
similar organizations, has demonstrated to the South that the freed-
men possess good intellectual abilities and are capable of becoming
good scholars.” Society members, “recognizing the brotherhood of
mankind and knowing that intellect does not depend upon the color
of the skin nor the curl of the hair,” stressed they “never doubted
the Negro’s ability to acquire knowledge, and distinguish himself by
Freed-Person of Color’s Moral Situation 33
Wells described herself as a “voracious reader.”48
She stated that
she “had read all the fiction in the Sunday school library and in
In addition, she shared that not only had she read
the Bible in its entirety but that she “could read nothing else on
Sunday afternoons at home, because my parents would not permit
Although she was introduced to classical literature, especially
Shakespeare, she was not familiar with works written by African
Americans; neither was she knowledgeable about different expres-
sions within Methodism. This lack of awareness about black authors
and traditionally black Methodist churches and their bishops could
be due to the fact that “the African Methodist Episcopal Church had
pledged not to interfere with congregations that wished to remain in
Nevertheless, her experience at Rust College provided
a foundation from which she would greatly benefit in the future.
Most notably, her parents’ stance on politics, religion, and education
functioned as avenues to foster a sense of hope-filled expectation that
influenced Wells’s perception of fairness and her subsequent commit-
ment to social justice.
Head of Family’s Response to the
1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic
The year 1878 was a defining moment for Ida B. Wells. From slavery
to freedom, she had witnessed and benefitted from African Americans
who reinterpreted concepts of domination and autonomy, compliance
and resilience, calibrated violence and moral courage, and powerless-
ness and agency. And when a particularly virulent variety of yellow
swept up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Memphis,
responses to this plague provide additional insight about the moral
character of the black family during a time of community and family
Memphis had refused to close its ports to ships that were suspected
of transporting patients infected with yellow fever. Carnival or Mardi
Gras, rather than disease, was the primary focus. Although “no one
would even know how yellow fever spread from one person to the
next until 1900,”2
it was a common belief that African Americans
were immune to yellow fever but whites were not. As stories of shock-
ing accounts of fever deaths reached Memphis, panicked whites fled
the city. Fearing contagion, communities quarantined themselves and
turned refugees away at gunpoint. Wells, visiting her paternal grand-
mother in Tippah County, Mississippi, when “yellow fever was rag-
ing in Memphis, Tennessee, fifty miles away, as it had done before,”3
recalled that Holly Springs’s mayor “refused to quarantine against
Memphis.” Instead, Wells’s hometown “opened its doors to any who
wanted to come in.” And by “summer the fever took root in Holly
Wells and her relatives assumed that James Wells “would
take the family out in the country with my aunt Belle, my mother’s
sister; and because the mail was so irregular we didn’t expect letters.”5
36 Ethical Complications of Lynching
Wells and her extended family members would soon discover that
they had misjudged James Wells’s response to Holly Springs’s crisis.
After a mass exodus, Holly Springs “was left with the sick, the
dying, the poor who could not leave, and the few who,” like Wells’s
parents, “would not.”6
Eventually, Wells received word that “Jim and
Lizzie Wells have both died of the fever. They died within twenty-four
hours of each other.”7
Orphaned at sixteen, “after being a happy,
Wells’s initial reaction to her parents’ death
was that she “wanted to go home at once.”9
Her relatives expressed
concern and delayed her departure until they received “a letter from
the doctor in charge, who said I ought to come home.”10
question whether she acted out of a sense of obligation. After all, as
Wells shared with a train conductor who questioned her decision to
return to Holly Springs she was “the oldest of seven living children.11
There’s nobody but me to look after them now. Don’t you think I
should do my duty, too?”12
Based on an account of her father’s activi-
ties immediately preceding his death, we may also wonder whether
Wells’s decision to join her siblings reflected an awareness of love of
neighbor that is lived out in practical ways.
Although, as I mentioned previously, Wells was not aware of black
ecclesial leaders, her father’s actions mirrored those of Absalom Jones
and Richard Allen during Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic.13
Upon her return to Holly Springs, Wells’s sister Eugenia told her that
their father had nursed the sick, made coffins, delivered meals, and
inquired about those who were infected and affected by yellow fever.
The physician, who wrote Wells about her parents’ death, also con-
firmed her sister’s account of their father’s response to yellow fever in
their community. In particular, Wells recalled that the doctor shared
that her “father would be passing through the court house, which was
used as a hospital, on his way to the shop, carrying some lumber to
help make a coffin. If he passed a patient who was out of his head, he
would stop to quiet him. If he were dying, he would kneel down and
pray with him, then pick up his tools and go on with the rest of the
James Wells worked as a carpenter for almost twenty years, seven
as a slave and thirteen as a freed-person of color. When he died, he
left his children three hundred dollars,15
a mortgage-free home, and
no written stipulations about who would assume primary responsi-
bility for his children in the event of his death. Perhaps, since Wells’s
father was a Mason,16
it was understood he would not have to worry
about his children’s welfare. For as Wells recalled, “[W]hen the fever
Head of Family’s Response 37
epidemic was over, there was a gathering of Masons at our house
to decide what to do with us. Because my father had been a mas-
ter Mason, the Masonic brothers were our natural protectors. The
unanimous decision among the Masonic brothers was that I was old
enough to fend for myself.”17
Without input from Wells, the Masons
discussed and made decisions about her siblings’ living arrangements.
Upon hearing the Mason’s recommendation, Wells informed them
that “they were not going to put any of the children anywhere; I said
that it would make my father and mother turn over in their grave to
know their children had been scattered like that and that we owned
the house and if the Masons would help me find work, I would take
care of them.”18
During her transition from student to head of household, Wells
declined well-intentioned recommendations and instead elected to
become head of family, assuming primary responsibility for her five
siblings. In order to care for her sisters and brothers, Wells obtained
employment as a public school teacher. She received support from
family and friends. During the years immediately following her par-
ents’ death, her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends provided
assistance as Wells learned to manage multiple priorities related to
household and career responsibilities.
After her parents’ death, Wells had to make significant lifestyle
changes. She accomplished this by exploring ways in which to broaden
her circles of influence. This shift in perspective contributed to her
ability to maximize opportunities. Take, for example, her decision to
augment her formal education by enrolling in summer classes at Fisk
This emphasis on professional development positioned
Wells to be hired by multiple school jurisdictions during her tenure as
a public school educator.20
Eventually, Wells’s lifestyle choices became the subject of much
debate and would remain so for the remainder of her life. For example,
as a single career woman, she defied existing protocol and commuted
on the weekends. After relocating to Memphis in 1879, her social
outings were scrutinized and her character questioned. Though only
a few miles from the Mississippi border, Memphis provided an oppor-
tunity for Wells to broaden her cultural awareness. For instance, she
stated that she “joined a lyceum composed mainly of teachers of the
public schools” that “met every Friday afternoon in the Vance Street
Christian Church” with “literary exercises consisting of recitations,
essays, and debates interspersed with music.”21
Not only did she gain
a tremendous appreciation for the arts, Wells also discovered that she
38 Ethical Complications of Lynching
possessed a natural talent for journalism. Her participation in this
social group led to an invitation to write for religious publications,
such as the Living Way, “a weekly started in 1874 in the interest
of Negro Americans.”22
Writing under the pen name Iola,23
addressed local and national issues.
Her articles regarding Memphis’s preferential school board prac-
tices eventually led to her contract not being renewed. In an editorial
concerning this particular issue, Wells, who had been teaching in this
jurisdiction for seven years, highlighted the inadequate school facili-
ties and questioned employment practices that authorized the hiring
of teachers with substandard professional qualifications. Wells was
neither surprised by the board’s decision to discontinue her employ-
ment nor remorseful about her resolve to “take a chance in the inter-
est of the children of our race.”24
When the Memphis school board
rendered its decision not to renew her contract for the 1891–1892
school year, Wells realized the possibility existed to support herself
from income generated as a partner in a newspaper, as well as from
freelance journalism work, and elected to pursue her entrepreneurial
endeavors full-time, though not without a struggle.
As a young teacher in Memphis, Wells, perhaps for the first time,
became conscious of class distinctions. Her position as an educator
granted her access to certain venues to which she might not have
otherwise been invited. At the same time, her decision to defy tradi-
tions regarding the appropriate age by which a female should marry
resulted in gross gender misrepresentations. When her personal repu-
tation was threatened, she was not swayed by negative characteriza-
tions. Instead Wells realized that she had to deal with the matter for,
as she emphasized, her “good name was all that I had in the world,
that I was bound to protect it from attack by those who felt that they
could do so with impunity because I had no brother or father to pro-
tect it for me.” Not easily intimidated, Wells stated adamantly “that
virtue was not at all a matter of the section in which one lived; that
many a slave woman had fought and died rather than yield to the
pressure and temptations to which she was subjected.”25
From her father—an entrepreneur, mason, and active participant in
his community—Wells obtained a passion for justice and a profound
understanding of self-esteem. In addition, her parents taught her to
honor family commitments. James and Elizabeth Wells demonstrated
that faith and action were complimentary aspects of Ida’s value sys-
tem. This attributed to Wells’s ability to respond to the exigencies of
life. She recognized early that tremendous personal sacrifices often
Head of Family’s Response 39
accompany our ability to fulfill obligations. Through a variety of
means, she learned to skillfully apply her writing and oratorical abil-
ity to combat some of the injustices that she witnessed and experi-
enced. Her critique of social practices resulted in an onslaught of both
gender and racial recriminations. In spite of conflict encountered on
many levels about distorted concepts of justice with which she con-
tended, Wells’s sharp eye, keen insight, quick thinking, and boda-
cious attitude contributed to her amazing concept of “crusading for
A Matter of Perspective: Ida
B. Wells’s Critique of Lynching
From our inner strength, we acquire courage to stare hatred in the face and examine
the limits to which some will go in order to manufacture a prescribed way of life.
—Angela D. Sims
Lynching, without qualification, is a destructive act. In a speech
delivered at Tremont Temple1
in the Boston Monday Lectureship2
February 13, 1893, Ida B. Wells asserted adamantly that
the observing and thoughtful must know that in one section, at least,
of our common country, a government of the people, by the people,
and for the people, means a government by the mob; where the land
of the free and home of the brave means a land of lawlessness, murder
and outrage; and where liberty of speech means the license of might
to destroy the business and drive from home those who exercise this
privilege contrary to the will of the mob.3
To address a national sentiment expressed in these remarks, Wells’s
work had two distinct purposes. She wanted to promote a collective
positive self-definition of African Americans in the public sphere and
“at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a
42 Ethical Complications of Lynching
demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the
James Cutler, as I indicated earlier, wrote about this “grisly chap-
ter in American history”5
in the early twentieth century for some of
the same reasons as Wells. In the foreword to his 1905 publication
Lynch-Law: An Investigation into the History of Lynching in the
United States, Cutler, an economics professor at Wellesley College
and a visiting professor in political economy at Yale University when
he conducted his research on lynch law, listed four specific objec-
tives that he hoped his research would accomplish. From the data
that informed his study, Cutler hoped to (1) determine the causes for
the prevalence of the practice, (2) determine what the social condi-
tions are under which lynch law operates, (3) test the validity of the
arguments that have been advanced in justification of lynching, and
(4) contribute in some measure to a better understanding of this most
serious and difficult problem.6
Cutler provides a more extensive overview of the origination of the
term lynch than that offered later by scholars such as civil rights histo-
rian Philip Dray and sociologist Orlando Patterson.7
As one example
of many proffered definitions, Cutler referred to an 1899 legislative
act in Indiana that declared that
any collection of individuals assembled for any unlawful purpose
intending to injure any person by violence and without authority of
law shall, for the purpose of this act, be regarded as a “mob,” and any
act of violence exercised by such mob upon the body of any person
shall constitute the crime of “lynching,” when such act or acts of vio-
lence result in death.8
Like other “forms of collective action mob violence is more than
simply random and irrational violence,”9
as historian W. Fitzhugh
Brundage emphasized. This exertion of will is frequently associated
with a deliberate use of coercion for self-serving purposes. As Michael
J. Pfeifer explained, “[C]ollective violence most often served the goals
of white supremacy, as lynchers especially targeted alleged African
Published in the late twentieth century, Brundage’s research docu-
ments vicious acts of human butchery during a fifty-year period, from
1880 to 1930, in Georgia and Virginia. His results parallel the findings
presented by Wells almost a century earlier. Although Brundage and
sociologists E. M. Beck and Stewart E. Tolnay presented evidence that
A Matter of Perspective 43
pointed to black participation in mob violence,11
that “there can be little question that lynchings were inherently con-
servative, directed as they were against blacks and other subordinate
groups, and that the mere threat of mob violence became a form of
coercion that sustained the status quo in the South.”12
Based on this,
it stands to reason that such intimidating behavior can contribute to
sanctioning a culture of terror as a normative social construct. Given
this climate, the horrors of lynching and the sense of vulnerability it
created left a permanent mark on black culture.
Quite often, individuals who subscribe to a tyrannical form of gov-
ernment do so to protect perceived points of privilege. In response to
an 1897 opinion on lynching, the Rev. Norman B. Wood, a graduate
of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of Louisville, explained
what was accepted by many as a given in the United States. Wood
stated correctly that “we have Anglo-Saxon law in our American code
for the Anglo-Saxon civilization, which it is; and then for the new
race of African citizens, the inauguration of African law in the form
of lynch law.” All too often, as Wood noted, this tendency to view
America and Anglo-Saxon as synonymous perpetuated America’s race
problem. Given this prevalent view, Wood recognized that as “long as
we have two races so diverse in genius, so long will it be necessary to
adapt the forms of law to those special types of humanity, and if the
statute books do not furnish them the abiding sense of justice vested
in the mind of the body politic will.” For this reason, Wood surmised
that “the sentiment of the South is one law, and one standard of right
for the white citizen and another law, and another standard of right
for the black citizen.”13
His assessment implies that active and passive
participation can function to foster an environment in which, as Wells
wrote, “the unsupported word of any white person for any cause is
sufficient to cause a lynching.”14
Although this statement is broad and
may be perceived by some as an overgeneralization, an examination
of U.S. history during the period 1892–1910 supports Wells’s claim
about the tendency to ignore what she characterized accurately as
human slaughter. Wells asserted, in no uncertain terms, that failure to
acknowledge barbaric practices that symbolize a “league with death
and the covenant with hell”15
only serve to exacerbate the problem.
Wells on Lynching: An Overview
Wells understood the dynamics of corrupt complicity that allowed
lynching to become an almost unquestioned practice. Furthermore,
her observations illustrate that justice is often determined by construc-
tions that intersect race and gender representations. Take for instance
the facts that she presented regarding a January 1, 1892 race-based
lynching that were subsequently published in an October first edition
of the Chicago Inter Ocean. It was reported that:
The woman who was paraded as a victim of violence was of bad char-1.
acter; her husband was a drunkard and a gambler.
She was publicly reported and generally known to have been criminally2.
intimate with Coy (the alleged rapist) for more than a year previous.
She was compelled by threats, if not by violence, to make the charge3.
against the victim.
When she came to apply the match Coy asked her if she would burn4.
him after they had “been sweethearting” so long.
A large majority of the “superior” white men prominent in the affair5.
are the reputed fathers of mulatto children.1
Wells realized that “these are not pleasant facts.” “They are,” how-
ever, “illustrative of the vital phase of the so-called race question,
which should properly be designated an earnest inquiry as to the
best methods by which religion, science, law and political power
may be employed to excuse injustice, barbarity and crime done to
a people because of race and color.” Furthermore, as Wells pointed
out, “there can be no possible belief that these people were inspired
by any consuming zeal to vindicate God’s law against miscegena-
tionists of the most practical sort.” In the case referenced earlier,
Wells concluded that since “the woman was a willing partner in the
46 Ethical Complications of Lynching
victim’s guilt, and being the ‘superior’ race must naturally have been
Even though Wells recognized that “the power of the State, country
and city, the civil authorities and the strong arm of the military power
were all on the side of the mob and of lawlessness,”3
she asserted that
the onus of moral responsibility should rest with the white female. In
other words, Wells juxtaposed opinions about the inferiority of blacks
in America against the hypocrisy surrounding interracial sexual activ-
ity to illustrate that to some extent lynching as a moral crisis could
not be understood apart from the problem of the color line in the
United States. We see, on a very elementary level, that Wells astutely
observed that gender and class constructions can be used to foster
divisions that are not necessarily based on pigmentation. According
to Wells, the problem of the color line “... is the Banquo’s ghost of
politics, religion, and sociology which will not down at the bidding
of those who are tormented with its ubiquitous appearance on every
occasion. Times without number, since invested with citizenship, the
race has been indicted for ignorance, immorality and general worth-
lessness—declared guilty and executed by its self-constituted judges.”4
Her assessment demonstrates the ability of a dominant group, in this
case leading white male citizens, to advance dual myths of black male
bestiality and white female innocence without a requirement to con-
front white male promiscuity.5
Or, as she put it, “as excuse for the
same, a new cry, as false as it is foul, is raised in an effort to blast race
character, a cry which has proclaimed to the world that virtue and
innocence are violated by Afro-Americans who must be killed like
wild beasts to protect womanhood and childhood.”6
In light of this
historical reality, Wells’s comments on lynching indicate that we must
seek creative ways to act on behalf of victims of violence in a society
that often refuses to confront domestic forms of terror in a systematic
and consistent manner.
Although Wells had a definite reason for writing, her commitment
to tell the truth, from a minority perspective, was not without risk.
She was not naïve but her dedication to her race, as well as her sense
of professionalism, compelled her to examine the facts closely. From
her evaluation of data collected and published by major newspapers,
coupled with her investigative reporting, Wells’s interpretation pointed
to inequities in the justice system of the United States and highlighted
the nation’s distorted sense of civilized behavior. In a context where
African Americans were viewed by many as inferior, her cultural
Wells on Lynching 47
assessment challenged the world’s view of life in nineteenth-century
America. Or as Cutler stated, “[B]y many it is believed that in no
other respect to-day is American civilization so open to reproach as
in its toleration of the practice of lynching, and there is an increasing
demand that this summary method of administering justice be sup-
pressed and utterly abolished.”7
A prominent spokesperson on lynching, Wells articulated atroci-
ties that were attributed to a society established on stratifications
based primarily on race, gender, and class in unambiguous terms.
Aware of the complex nature of the problem confronting her,
Wells’s anti-lynching apologetic was, to a large extent, based on an
analysis of data contained in white newspapers.8
By using informa-
tion collected and compiled by established and reputable sources
endorsed by the status quo, she employed a method that is perhaps
best described as a liberation praxis that recognizes that behavior is
a learned experience that is subjected to socioeconomic influences.
One of the ways Wells accomplished this was the manner in which
she used language to raise awareness about the broader implications
We need look no further than the title page of Wells’s A Red Record
for evidence of her ability to assign new meaning to familiar terms
Wells’s choice of words, “respectfully submitted to the
Nineteenth Century civilization in the Land of the Free and the Home
of the Brave,”10
would factor significantly in her effort to gain inter-
national support to advance her anti-lynching campaign.11
before the first paragraph of Wells’s “tabulated statistics and alleged
causes of lynchings in the United States” is read, her title page implies
that the information that she provides about the latter half of the last
decade of the nineteenth century challenges ideas about justice in a
society that self-identifies as civilized.
Wells viewed this challenge to expose injustices that resulted in
inhumane displays of brutality as a key aspect of her life vocation
and mission. Her resulting ethical analysis reflects her ability to
employ an approach that encourages raising questions and probing
the depths of those queries. Consistent use of this method contrib-
uted significantly to Wells’s ability to present a different viewpoint
about behaviors that were selectively condoned on the basis of estab-
lished practices that were subsequently presented as commonly held
traditions. What Wells accomplished is no small feat for a former
slave whose formal education would perhaps be equivalent to a
48 Ethical Complications of Lynching
twenty-first-century secondary education.12
Ultimately, I contend
that Wells’s deliberate questioning modality can be implemented as a
tool that can be employed to discern accurately that which is uniquely
different yet essential to moving toward a collective understanding of
what constitutes justice.
Ida B. Wells, writing twenty-seven years after Mississippi passed
that freed her from a perpetual state of bondage, employed
journalistic skills to evaluate a moral problem.2
determination to document southern horrors led to her emergence as
a leading nineteenth-century anti-lynching advocate. She couched the
purpose of her analysis in biblical language. She said that her goal “is
not a shield for the despoiler of virtue, nor altogether a defense for the
blind Afro-American Sampsons who suffer themselves to be betrayed
by white Delilahs.”3
Wells did not deny the existence of racially based
sexual crimes. She did, however, suggest that some of the charges
were deceptive allegations to avoid public disclosure of consensual
biracial relationships. Thus, of primary importance to Wells, as she
noted in Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, was the
Give the world a true, unvarnished account of the causes of lynch lawA.
in the South;
Contribute to truth, an array of facts, the perusal of which it is hopedB.
will stimulate this great American Republic to demand that justice be
done though the heavens fall;
Accept responsibility for showing that the Afro-American race is moreC.
sinned against than sinning;
Contribute toward proving that the Afro-American is not a bestialD.
While it is impossible to know the exact number of persons who were
lynched in any given year,5
the 1892 lynch statistics Wells obtained
from the Chicago Tribune indicated that of the 241 documented lynch-
160 “were of Negro descent.”7
Because the individuals were
6 4 1 1
6 4 2
6 3 6
Figure 5.1 Charges Alleged against Blacks Lynched in 1892.
Source: Wells, Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 82–87. Data compiled from lynch law
statistics, which, according to Wells, were published in the Chicago Tribune on January 1, 1894.
See Wells’s Chapter II: “Lynch Law Statistics in a Red Record” for additional details.
44 37 32 27
13 10 7 5 4
Figure 5.2 Charges Alleged against Black Men Lynched (January 1, 1882—January 1,
Source: Wells, Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 82–87. Data compiled from lynch law
statistics, which, according to Wells, were published in the Chicago Tribune on January 1, 1894.
See Wells’s Chapter II: “Lynch Law Statistics in a Red Record” for additional details.
Investigating Facts 51
subjected to a most vile form of vigilante justice, it was often difficult
to determine the validity of the charges. However, of the reported
lynchings, figure 5.1 shows that the majority of the purported crimes
in 1892 were for murder (fifty-eight) and rape (forty-six).8
When we look at raw data for the period January 1, 1882–January
1, 1892 (see figure 5.2), it is quite plausible to understand why the 1892
reasons ascribed to lynching caused Wells, upon close examination,
to question the allegations.
For instance, the average number of black men lynched for rape
and murder between January 1, 1882 and January 1, 1892 is approxi-
mately twenty-seven and twenty-five, respectively. Based on this, the
number of black men lynched in 1892 for rape increased by almost 70
percent while the number of black men lynched during the same year
for murder more than doubled.
It is important to note, though, that Wells did not condone crimi-
nal behavior. She stressed that “the Negro does not claim that all of
the one thousand black men, women and children, who have been
hanged, shot and burned alive during the past ten years, were inno-
cent of the charges made against them. But we do insist that the
punishment is not the same for both classes of criminals.”9
mary concern for Wells was the reason for increased lynchings and
the ineptness of elected officials at the local, state, and/or national
level to act in a just manner. She took the position that “it should be
already established as a fact and not as a theory, that every human
being must have a fair trial for his life and liberty, no matter what the
charge against him.”10
Since attempts were sometimes made to rationalize this depravity,
suggesting that lynchings were “the result of frustrations caused by
the inability to predict the outcome of a trial,”11
to provide an account
of lynching from the underside was not a pleasant but a necessary task
for Wells. The lynching of individuals with whom she was personally
acquainted prompted Wells to consider that an innocent person could
become the victim of mob violence for any reason. She realized that
this was especially true for southern blacks and commented that “the
mob spirit has grown with the increasing intelligence of the Afro-
American. It has left the out-of-the-way places where ignorance pre-
vails, has thrown off the mask and with this new cry stalks in broad
daylight in large cities, the centres of civilization, and is encouraged
by the ‘leading citizens’ and the press.”12
In addition, the 1892 lynch
statistics indicate that a black man could be lynched on a variety of
charges that included, but were not limited to, self-defense, fraud,
52 Ethical Complications of Lynching
insulting women, and suspected robbery.13
In her effort to challenge
an almost unquestioned practice, Wells’s persistence to examine
alleged causes used to justify lynching can be described as a living
In a letter dated October 25, 1892, Frederick Douglass endorsed
Wells’s initial publication “on the lynch abomination now gener-
ally practiced against colored people in the South.”14
Augustus Bailey in July 1818 on a slave plantation in Maryland,15
Douglass “rose through the ranks of the antislavery movement in the
1840s and 1850s to become black America’s most electrifying speaker
and commanding writer.”16
Most recognized for his oratorical abili-
ties during his lifetime, it is Douglass’s commitment to social justice
issues such as slavery, franchise, and women’s rights that make him
one of the world’s most prominent human rights advocates.
Primarily self-educated, at twenty Douglass wrote his narrative.
Given his fugitive slave status in 1845, Douglass exercised tremendous
courage when he published an account of his life as a slave. To mini-
mize the possibility of his capture and return to bondage, his aboli-
tionist friends arranged for him to spend almost two years overseas.
Douglass used this time in Ireland, Scotland, and England to stress
the inhumane conditions associated with slavery in the United States.
This initial international exposure influenced his abolitionist stance.
When he presented an antislavery apologetic based on his interpreta-
tion of the equality of all people contained in key documents upon
which the United States was founded, Douglass called into question
the argument of abolitionists who “regarded the Constitution as a
The editor of the Rochester, New York antislavery newspaper, The
North Star and an Underground Railroad conductor, Douglass was
appointed U.S. minister to Haiti in 1889. It was in this ambassadorial
capacity that Douglass represented Haiti during the 1893 World’s Fair
in Chicago as well as sought to provide a forum for the contributions
of black citizens of the United States to be recognized. Although Wells
opposed Douglass’s recommendation that African Americans partici-
pate in the World’s Fair, she noted in her autobiography that without
his involvement in this venue on behalf of Haiti “... Negroes of the
United States would have had no part nor lot in any official way in the
World’s Fair. For the United States government had refused her Negro
citizens participation therein.”18
Less than a half century after his initial antislavery trip to England,
Douglass commended Wells for her effort to both outline the problem
Investigating Facts 53
of lynching and to offer a solution to address this issue. With skilled
succinctness, he also made several key observations. For example, he
contended that Wells offered, with “convincing power,”19
tional account of lynching that surpassed efforts to evaluate the situ-
ation put forth by him and other undisclosed individuals. Wells and
historian John Nerone provide supporting evidence to substantiate
Douglass’s assertion. For example, Wells’s June 1892 editorial is
remarkably similar to Jesse C. Duke’s, publisher of the Montgomery
Herald, August 13, 1887 editorial. Duke’s editorial, quoted in
part by Wells and included in Nerone’s Violence against the Press,
Every day or so we read of the lynching of some negro for the outrag-
ing of some white woman. Why is it that white women attract negro
men now more than former days? There was a time when such a thing
was unheard of. There is a secret to this thing, and we greatly suspect it
is the growing appreciation of the white Juliet for the colored Romeo,
as he becomes more and more intelligent and refined. If something is
not done to break up these lynchings, it will be so after a while that
they will lynch every colored man that looks at a white woman with a
twinkle in his eye.20
Like Duke, Wells uttered a warning that care should be given to the
long-term implications of this charge. Both editors went to the heart
of the matter and declared that the southern white man’s ego and the
white woman’s character were at stake.
Another aspect of Douglass’s review of Wells’s work spoke to
her journalistic and analytical ability. In his evaluation of her work,
Douglass stated that “you give us what you know and testify from
actual knowledge. You have dealt with the facts with cool, painstak-
ing fidelity and left those naked and uncontradicted facts to speak for
Finally without discrediting other interpretations of
lynching, Douglass applauded Wells for her contribution for both its
present and future benefit. He declared that “if American conscience
were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half
Christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by
persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a
scream of horror, shame, and indignation would rise to Heaven wher-
ever your pamphlet shall be read.”22
Although we are not given any particulars, it is admittedly possible
that this rhetorical method can be employed as a strategy to encour-
age the serious student of current events (history past, present, and
54 Ethical Complications of Lynching
future) to contrast the veracity of popular cultural views on lynch-
ing with Wells’s analysis of the situation. At the same time, Douglass
stressed that “even crime has the power to reproduce itself and cre-
ate conditions favorable to its own existence.”23
Nevertheless, he was
adamant that Wells “must still think, speak and work, and trust in
the power of a merciful God for final deliverance.”24
In other words,
he encouraged Wells to expose injustice through a commitment to
assess the evidence from multiple perspectives in order to determine
how to develop, implement, and evaluate alternative approaches that
take seriously the impact of policies designed to control human behav-
ior through the construction of fear. Like Douglass, journalism and
public speaking became vehicles that Wells used to provide a social
analysis of lynching as a moral problem and ethical dilemma that
pervaded many aspects of American culture.
In his interdisciplinary study on race, violent crime, and American
culture, political scientist James W. Clarke’s research indicated that
“sociologists have attempted to discover the causes of lynching by
statistically analyzing such data as demographic characteristics, elec-
tion returns and economic cycles. But the inconclusive results of these
studies suggest that lynching was not closely associated with census
figures, voter preferences, or fluctuations in the business cycle.”25
scholars continue to explore the multiple dimensions of lynching, con-
siderable care must be taken to avoid an oversimplification of tech-
niques that Kelly Brown Douglas accurately describes as “the most
violently gruesome weapons used by white society to maintain power
over black men and women, particularly during the Reconstruction
and post-Reconstruction South.”26
It is virtually impossible to read
and not be affected by lynching techniques. Rather than list some of
the horrific practices noted by Wells and other scholars, I offer this
personal characterization to stress why we must avoid a tendency to
sanitize barbaric methods:
The citizens broke into the penitentiary and without any resistance
from law officials got their man. Dragged through the street in the
middle of the day, knives were plunged into the targeted victim as the
mob led the defenseless man to the execution site. Members of the
mob tied their helpless prey to a tree and prepared him for the slaugh-
ter. The noose was tightened. The rope ate into this man’s suspended
body. Thoughts of his parents, his partner, his children, his friends, his
acquaintances raced through his mind as bullets were pummeled into
his almost lifeless physique. While still conscious, he felt the intensity
Investigating Facts 55
of the fire eat into his flesh and the whip lash against his smolder-
ing frame. “Death at the hands of unknown persons” was not swift.
While the flames ate away at his flesh, his final conscious memory was
that of his body being quickly dismembered as photographers took pic-
tures from different angles. He wondered if the children, the virtuous
women, and the chivalrous men in the crowd would have nightmares.
Perhaps they, like their parents and others who stood in the crowd
waiting for him to take his final breath, had become desensitized to a
madness that knew no limits.
In Southern Horrors, Wells provided a plethora of examples to
support her position. Beginning her argument with, “The Offense,”
Wells presented a critique on the cult of true womanhood and its
impact on the outgrowth of dominant assumptions and prevalent
thinking. Historian Barbara Welter’s 1966 essay, “The Cult of True
was the first to define and map a spe-
cific ideology of gender that circumscribed women’s identity and
behavior. The idea of “The Cult of True Womanhood,” or “the cult
of domesticity,” sought to assert that womanly virtue resided in piety,
purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.28
Almost forty-five years after Wells made an assertion regarding the
use of lynching as a vehicle to address alleged rapes of white women
the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching
put forward the same argument.29
W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a histo-
rian, agrees with several scholars that “the preoccupation with sexual
attacks also was an expression of concern about the apparent weaken-
ing of conventional standards of sexual behavior and traditional gen-
der roles.” Brundage’s research reveals that “white southerners, who
clung ‘with a vengeance’ to a particularly potent blend of Victorian
values, placed an inordinate stress on the dangers that uncontrolled
sensuality posed not only to conventional morals but also to civiliza-
tion itself.” In many respects, Brundage’s findings confirm that “in
an era of rapid social and economic change, when patriarchal rule
faced trials from a nascent women’s movement and the expanding
economic role of women, polemics about the threat of sexual assault
exposed the desperate efforts of white men to reaffirm their dedica-
tion to the idealization of male chivalry and shore up the traditional
dependence of white women.”30
Yet, as Wells, Clarke, and Brundage point out, a similar reaction is
not forthcoming when the victim is a black woman. Wells gave exam-
ples to substantiate her assessment of the situation. In a description
of one particular incident, Wells said that “it was a deed dastardly
56 Ethical Complications of Lynching
enough to arouse Southern blood, which gives its horror of rape as
excuse for lawlessness, but she was an Afro-American. The case went
to the courts, an Afro-American lawyer defended the men and they
Careful not to minimize the physical and emotional trauma associ-
ated with rape, additional information regarding the circumstances
under which a black attorney represented the perpetrators of this
crime might provide additional insight into late nineteenth-century
cultural nuances that cut across color, gender, and class lines. This
would be especially beneficial in light of Clarke’s conclusion that nei-
ther whites nor blacks were ever lynched for raping black women.32
Unfortunately, because of the nature of lynching, it is virtually impos-
sible to document this assertion. Yet, we can assume that even though
research by some scholars provides evidence that blacks participated
in mob butchery, it is unlikely that a “death at the hands of persons
unknown” would have gone uninvestigated in the disappearance of
a white man.
In chapter two, “The Black and White of It,” Wells continued to
build her case. She presented a race and class analysis that illustrated
the strategic nature of systemic oppression. To illustrate this point,
she summarized several Memphis cases during the years 1885–1892.
One example she offered was a mutually consenting sexual liaison
between a white married woman and a black married man. The
spouse of a minister who spent a significant amount of time traveling,
the white woman cried rape when she thought that she might be preg-
nant. Of note in this particular incident though is the woman’s hus-
band’s reaction when, four years after the man’s conviction for rape,
his wife admitted her role in the affair. Not only did the minister file
for divorce, he also requested that an innocent man be released from
prison. Wells did not, however, provide an analysis of this response.
Instead, she used this example to emphasize the dynamics of race and
gender when a member of the majority culture chose to protect a stan-
dard of living even if it jeopardized someone else’s life. According to
Wells “there are thousands of such cases throughout the South, with
the difference that the Southern white men in insatiate fury wreak
their vengeance without intervention of law upon the Afro-American
who consort with their women.”33
I take exception, though, with Wells’s assessment of an example in
which a white girl’s accusation of assault by a black man did not result
in a conviction. Wells attributed the defendant’s acquittal to a lack of
evidence to substantiate the charge. Wells’s lack of details related to
Investigating Facts 57
this 1885–1886 incident in Memphis to support how she arrived at
this conclusion prompts me to speculate why the jury arrived at a non-
guilty verdict. I find Wells’s analysis problematic since she presented
similar examples, such as the one noted in the previous paragraph, to
illustrate that convictions for sexual assault were not dependent on
the presentation of concrete evidence. In fact, Brundage pointed out
that “loose definitions of sexual assault provided a convenient pretext
to lynch black men for offensive behavior that even white southern-
ers could not construe as a sexual threat.”34
Brundage further noted
that “occasionally, there were surprising instances in which the cir-
cumstances of a case were taken into account and summary punish-
ment was not inflicted upon the accused criminal.” In some of these
cases, Brundage stated that “family and relatives of alleged rape vic-
tims might plead with mobs to allow the courts to punish the alleged
assailant, and the public might take into account the age and repute of
the parties involved as well as other mitigating conditions.”35
particular instance, Wells fails to give us enough documentation to
support her conclusion regarding the lack of evidence as the basis for
acquittal. For instance, she did not take into consideration how infor-
mation about the alleged victim and accuser influenced the subsequent
verdict. In addition, she did not address the racial climate in Memphis
that attributed to the accuser not being lynched by a mob. Further
elaboration by Wells might possibly have given us valuable insight
about the judge and the existing legal system with specific attention to
changes that occurred between this reported account and the March
1892 lynching of Thomas Moss and his business partners.
To somewhat rectify the analytical weakness in chapter two, Wells
put forth some insightful observations in the third chapter. Her evalu-
ation of the almost unquestioned acceptance of “The New Cry” of
rape to justify lynching points to what Anne P. Rice, in her intro-
duction to Witnessing Lynching: American Writers Respond, credits
to the creation of a climate of terror. After all, as Rice writes, “the
racial and sexual mythology of southern apartheid demanded that
even consensual sex between a black man and a white woman be
punished by death.”36
Wells noted that it is important to recognize
that in order “to palliate this record (which grows worse as the Afro-
American becomes intelligent) and excuse some of the most heinous
crimes that ever stained the history of a country, the South is shield-
ing itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its
Yet the reputation of all female citizens was not at issue.38
As Wells noted, citing a Chestertown, Maryland case as a basis for
58 Ethical Complications of Lynching
her assessment, “when that poor Afro-American was murdered,
the whites excused their refusal of a trial on the ground that they
wished to spare the white girl the mortification of having to testify in
This position reinforces Wells’s conclusion that “this cry has
had its effect. It has closed the heart, stifled the conscience, warped
the judgment and hushed the voice of press and pulpit on the subject
of lynch law throughout this ‘land of liberty.’” Wells gave voice to the
hypocrisy that characterized lynching. She observed that “men who
stand high in the esteem of the public for Christian character, for
moral and physical courage, for devotion to the principles of equal
and exact justice to all, and for great sagacity, stand as cowards who
fear to open their mouths before this great outrage.” In fact, as far as
Wells was concerned, silence was an act of conspiracy whereby “they
do not see that by their tacit encouragement, their silent acquiescence,
the black shadow of lawlessness in the form of lynch law is spreading
its wings over the whole country.”40
Although Wells did not go into detail, she referenced actions by
Oscar B. Fitzgerald and Benjamin Tillman. Fitzgerald, “editor of the
Christian Advocate when he was elected bishop of the Methodist
Church South in 1890,”41
“excused and condoned lynching on the
grounds of defending the honor of white women.”42
When he was
elected governor of South Carolina, Tillman “called lynching a blot
on our civilization and noted that since whites controlled every
aspect of the criminal justice system it was simply infamous that
resort should be had to lynch law.”43
Yet, prior to the start of his
second term, Tillman became an advocate of lynch law. Wells noted
that “men who, like Governor Tillman, start the ball of lynch law
rolling for a certain crime, are powerless to stop it when drunken or
criminal white toughs feel like hanging an Afro-American on any
With ecclesial and political endorsements, the problem of lynch-
ing along sexually and racially manufactured lines is exacerbated
and justice becomes little more than an illusion. African Americans
and European Americans accepted the word of ordained clergy and
elected officials without considering the impact that a subculture of
condoned vigilante activity had on society at large. Due process was
not a primary concern and when the cry of rape echoed throughout
the land questions about mulatto children and the white men who
slept with their black mothers were frequently rendered taboo for dis-
cussion in the public sphere. We dare not mention black men’s inabil-
ity to intervene on behalf of black women attacked by white men
Investigating Facts 59
without fear of further retaliation nor discuss the manner in which
African-American men were portrayed in the larger society.
In “The Malicious and Untruthful White Press,” Wells pointed
out that within her own profession white journalists’ subjective use
of the power of the pen justified lynch law by dehumanizing blacks.
Characterized by some white journalists as “beastial and roving
newspaper articles could further incite the fury associ-
ated with mob rule. Wells referenced one such article in which the
writer contributed this animalistic behavior to the demise of slavery
and maintained that
the generation of Negroes which have grown up since the war have
lost in large measure the traditional wholesome awe of the white race
which kept the Negroes in subjection even when their masters were
in the army, and their families left unprotected except by the slaves
themselves. There is no longer a restraint upon the brute passion of
Based on this claim, lynching was very much a symbol of control.
The rope and fagot, burning and maiming, and other grotesque forms
of inhumane treatment were designed to communicate a specific mes-
sage. Take for instance the response to a self-generated question regard-
ing a viable option to address the perceived problem of an increase in
incidences of the rape of white women by black men. Referencing an
article printed on May 17, 1892 in two Memphis newspapers, Wells
used the following to illustrate the extent to which the press could
malign a people in order to shape public opinion. While the unidenti-
fied author is unquestionably correct that the crime of rape is always
horrible, the emphasis on race can be interpreted to infer that blacks
are not appalled by this act as well as to suggest that black women are
not raped. The writer emphasized that for southern white men
there is nothing which so fills the soul with horror, loathing and fury
as the outraging of a white woman by a Negro. It is the race question
in the ugliest, vilest, most dangerous aspect. The Negro as a political
factor can be controlled. But neither laws nor lynchings can subdue
his lusts. Sooner or later it will force a crisis. We do not know in what
form it will come.47
That time came for Wells in a defining tragic moment in which
her goddaughter’s father and his two business partners were lynched
in Memphis. Wells described Thomas Moss and his associates as
60 Ethical Complications of Lynching
“peaceful, law-abiding citizens and energetic business men.”48
contrast, “the dailies and associated press reports heralded these men
to the country as ‘toughs’ and ‘Negro desperadoes who kept a low
In response to this character assassination, Wells recognized
that “the mob-spirit was not to be satisfied until the paper which
was doing all it could to counteract this impression was silenced.”50
The individuals who destroyed the Free Speech did not realize that
at a deeper level they were perhaps instrumental in reshaping Wells’s
understanding of the power of words to convey messages of truth,
courage, and hope. Furthermore, Wells noted that lynching reflected
“a growing disregard of human life.”51
Consequently, this false con-
cept of justice is based on exaggerated representations of a targeted
The ability to use language to shape a society’s sense of social jus-
tice illustrates what Wells characterized as “The South’s Position.” In
the penultimate chapter, Wells compared and contrasted the almost
unnoticeable differences between the manner in which blacks were
treated during the “Antebellum South and the New South.”52
challenged the prevailing notion that “the South is brutalized to a
degree not realized by its own inhabitants, and the very foundation
of government, law and order, are imperiled.”53
She examined the
exchange of one form of tyranny for another type of bondage and
insisted that “the men and women in the South who disapprove of
lynching and remain silent on the perpetration of such outrages, are
particeps criminis, accomplices, accessories before and after the fact,
equally guilty with the actual lawbreakers who would not persist if
they did not know that neither the law nor militia would be employed
In the final chapter, “Self Help,” Wells accurately observed that
southern community and business leaders maintained a laissez
faire approach to incidents of lawlessness. Tolnay’s and Beck’s find-
ings were similar. In their study of lynching in ten southern states,
they confirmed that “when newspapers reported that a lynch mob
included many prominent and respected members of the white com-
munity, they not only legitimated mob violence, but also left the clear
message of racial solidarity—of all whites united against the com-
While exceptions most certainly existed Wells stated
that in several reported lynch cases in which the perpetrators were
known, an attempt was not made to “bring the lynchers to justice.”56
For instance, in response to Memphis’s March 1892 lynching, Wells
explained that “a meeting of white citizens in June, three months after
Investigating Facts 61
the lynching, passed resolutions for the first time, condemning it. But
they did not punish the lynchers. Every one of them was known by
name, because they had been selected to do the dirty work, by some
of the very citizens who passed these resolutions.”57
this attitude to the majority culture’s self-centered focus to employ
whatever means were necessary to maintain an accustomed lifestyle
and stressed that “the race thus outraged must find out the facts of
this awful hurling of men into eternity on supposition, and give them
to the indifferent and apathetic country.”58
To deal with this indifference toward lynching and its impact on
society, Wells proposed a strategic option that would later describe
a response to tyranny in the United States advanced by the Rev. Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. in his efforts on behalf of oppressed persons.
To abolish pervasive and semiofficial institutions,59
Wells offered a
set of relevant tools that we can employ to address current human
rights violations. She encouraged subjugated people, and those who
advocate on their behalf, to employ a variety of nonviolent strategies
in their efforts to work actively for justice.
A critical engagement of Ida B. Wells’s A Red Record: Tabulated
Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States,
1892–1893–1894, reveals her ability to uncover hidden values that
reflect a countercultural perspective that demands a recasting of nar-
ratives in order to ascertain truth. A skillful strategist, Wells used
her rhetorical skills to challenge contemporary viewpoints regarding
civilized existence in nineteenth-century America. Wells juxtaposed
concepts of liberty, codified in the constitution, against the real-
ity of lynch law in the United States to demonstrate that “whatever
faults and failings other nations may have in their dealings with their
own subjects or with other people, no other civilized nation stands
condemned before the world with a series of crimes so peculiarly
national.” As far as Wells was concerned, “it becomes a painful duty
of the Negro to reproduce a record which shows that a large por-
tion of the American people avow anarchy, condone murder and defy
the contempt of civilization.”1
Given the complexity of mob violence,
Wells’s second publication is a specific account of important informa-
tion about a particular demographic component.
Wells’s opening remarks to A Red Record indicate that the
“student of American sociology will find the year 1894 marked by
a pronounced awakening of the public conscience to a system of
anarchy and outlawry which had grown during a series of ten years
to be so common, that scenes of unusual brutality failed to have
any visible effect upon the humane sentiments of the people of our
The gravity of this statement suggests that mob rule had
become synonymous with accepted forms of tyranny. In other words,
lynching, through the use of terror, had become the mechanism to
maintain indefinitely certain social customs. Execution, without a
64 Ethical Complications of Lynching
judicial requirement that enacted statutes may not contain provi-
sions that result in the unfair, arbitrary, or unreasonable treatment
of an individual, was therefore believed to have the power to cure all
social ills. In essence, the abolition of chattel slavery had the chilling
and numbing effect of advancing the idea of white supremacy. As
I stated in the prologue, quoting sociologist Jonathan Markovitz,
“lynching was always intended as a metaphor for, or a way to under-
stand, race relations.”3
Markovitz goes on to explain that “while
there were many different types of lynchings, lynch mobs typically
worked to ensure that black audiences were aware of the strength
of white supremacy and the costs of violating the boundaries of the
In his analysis of lynching, Brundage concluded that
there was a ritualistic aspect associated with lynching and that “the
ideology of white supremacy gave license to violence of all kinds
against blacks, but, because white southerners attached varied and
contradictory meanings to the slogan of white supremacy, white vio-
lence against blacks necessarily took myriad forms.” Furthermore,
“even if most whites were committed to defending white power and
maintaining the subordinate status of blacks, they advocated a wide
range of strategies, including conflicting methods, to accomplish
Thus, tools to enforce conformity to prevailing racial
roles resulted in what Wells described as “a new system of intimida-
tion” in which “the Negro was not only whipped and scourged; he
In his essay “The Prophetic Tradition in Afro-America,” Cornel
West provides evidence to support his claim that “black prophetic
practices best exemplify the truncated content and character of
American prophetic practices; they reveal the strengths and short-
comings, the importance and impotence, of prophetic activities in
West goes on to say that “black prophetic
practices assume that—after the most intense scrutiny—some ulti-
mate sense of a morally grounded sense of justice ought to prevail
in personal and society affairs.”8
Wells’s ability, in her 1910 essay
“How Enfranchisement Stops Lynchings,” to exegete accurately her
social context indicates that she understood that her analysis of con-
temporary manifestations of injustice were directly related to and
informed by practices of a not-so-distant past whose very existence
was predicated on the exploitation, by whatever means necessary, of
human beings, primarily those of African descent. While she did not
address the issue of gender inequality, her assessment of practices that
Interpreting Data 65
contradicted laws is still remarkable given the era in which she wrote.
Her analysis of the freedom to vote pointed to a larger social issue.
Wells noted correctly that
one-third of the states of the union have made and enforced laws which
abridge the rights of American citizens. Although the Constitution
specifically says, no state shall do so, they do deprive persons of life,
liberty and property without due process of law, and do deny equal
protection of the laws to persons of Negro descent. The right of citi-
zens to vote is denied and abridged in these states, on account of race,
color and previous condition of servitude, and has been so denied ever
since the withdrawal of the United States troops from the South. This
in spite of the fifteenth amendment, which declares that no state shall
Wells’s choice of language suggests that she targeted a specific audi-
ence to present the results of her analysis of lynchings that occurred
during a three-year period from 1892 to 1894. She wrote during an
era in which liberal thought concerning constitutionalism, wider
suffrage, toleration of dissent, absence of arbitrariness, and policies
designed to promote happiness had acquired powerful advocates
in Britain and other European countries and in the United States.
Despite a prevalent tendency to find fault within the United States,
European visitors considered this country an exemplar of liberalism
because of its popular culture, emphasis on equality, and wide suf-
frage. Even though Wells did not identify her desired reading group, it
was probably not coincidental that she submitted her findings to the
nineteenth-century civilization in the “land of the free and the home
of the brave.” Perhaps she hoped to capture the attention of indi-
viduals who had already demonstrated a willingness to stand with
and work on behalf of people who were perceived as less than fully
Wells attended a school founded by the Northern Methodist
Church and was, herself, living proof, that “when emancipation
came to the Negroes, there arose in the northern part of the United
States an almost divine sentiment among the noblest, purest and best
white women of the North, who felt called to a mission to educate
and Christianize the millions of southern ex-slaves.”10
At the same
time, Wells knew from personal experience and from the unfold-
ing historical record of the United States that it took a tremendous
amount of courage to defy social norms. Reflecting on the challenges
66 Ethical Complications of Lynching
that female missionary-teachers faced during Reconstruction Wells
these young women braved dangers whose record reads more like fic-
tion than fact. They became social outlaws in the South. The peculiar
sensitiveness of the southern white men for women, never shed its pro-
tecting influence about them. No friendly word from their own race
cheered them in their work; no hospitable doors gave them the com-
panionship like that from which they had come. No chivalrous white
man doffed his hat in honor or respect. They were “Nigger teachers”—
unpardonable offenders in the social ethics of the South, and were
insulted, persecuted and ostracized, not by Negroes, but by the white
manhood which boasts of its chivalry toward women.11
Reverdy Cassius Ransom offered12
a prophetic sermonic comple-
ment to Wells’s international anti-lynching campaign. Founder and
builder of churches, literary genius, author of many books and
civil rights activist, editor, and preacher, Ransom was
one of the most important black churchmen of the first half of the
twentieth century. Born in Flushing, Ohio, in 1861, Ransom lived all
of his life in the North. Licensed to preach in the African Methodist
Episcopal (AME) Church in 1883, Ransom completed his schooling
at Wilberforce University in 1886 and began his service as an itinerant
minister. His ordination to the diaconate in 1886 was followed two
years later by his ordination as an elder. In 1924, Ransom was elected
the forty-eighth bishop of the Church and retained that position until
his retirement in 1952.
For Ransom, to be Christlike required a concern for the con-
dition of African Americans. Daily contact with those who were
suffering raised questions for Ransom concerning the relationship
between human suffering and the Christian God. Making use of
the social gospel and its implicit liberal theology, Ransom con-
structed a working response. He argued that the proper practice
of Christian principles, understood through a liberal theological
lens and democratic ideals, did not allow for the avoidance of hard
race issues. Thus, the social gospel and its implementation provided
him with a theoretical framework for an evaluation of the black
Ransom was one of the few AME ministers to openly advocate
socialism as the answer to the nation’s socioeconomic and political
problems in general and African Americans’ problems in particular.
As early as 1897, he suggested that since the great majority of blacks
Interpreting Data 67
belonged to the proletarian class, it would be the socialists who,
believing like Jesus “that the rights of men [sic] are more sacred
than the rights of property,”14
would bring about the solution of
the race problem. Based on this assessment, we can surmise that
Ransom’s understanding of socialism entailed the full enactment of
democracy and equality. Casting it in terms of communal coopera-
tion and a Christian code of ethics, Ransom argued that socialism
allowed for the unity and selfless sharing earmarking the gospel of
In 1912, as a member of the AME’s Committee on the State of the
Country, Ransom, along with others, spoke of the danger to American
institutions involved in increasing prejudice, discrimination, and mob
violence and called on all members of the race to exert themselves
like men and women against those who were cheating the race out of
the priceless heritage of their citizenship. According to Ransom, the
sense of full humanity and community espoused in socialism was the
only way to provide the type of level playing field necessary for the
development of the United States in keeping with its ideals and desires
outlined in its early founding documents.
Ransom sought to rethink the sense of Manifest Destiny of the
United States, which he viewed as a warped concept of divine privi-
lege that allowed for the abuse of others, and to replace it with a
commitment to the welfare of all humanity, both at home and abroad.
The term Manifest Destiny, introduced by John Louis O’Sullivan, a
New York journalist of Irish descent, in 1845, originally referred to
the annexation of Texas and the adjustment of the Oregon boundary
dispute. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century Manifest
Destiny was viewed by many as a belief that the United States was
destined to expand across the continent, by force if necessary. Robert
W. Johannsen said that “what has not been generally recognized, if it
is known at all, is that there was nothing in O’Sullivan’s statements
to suggest territorial expansion by force.”15
O’Sullivan did, however,
the belief that the United States was guided by a providential destiny, in
other words, that the nation had a preordained, God-sanctioned mis-
sion to fulfill. His words reflected the boundlessness, the rejection of
limits on national as well as individual development, and an impatience
with anything that restrained or inhibited progress that characterized
what the Romantics called the “spirit of the age.” It was destiny, more-
over, that tied territorial expansion to the American mission. Mission
and expansion were inseparably linked by Manifest Destiny.16
68 Ethical Complications of Lynching
The controversy over slavery further fueled expansionism, as the
North and South each wanted the nation to admit new states that
supported its section’s economic, political, and slave policies.
An eloquent and influential spokesperson for racial justice, Wells
described Ransom as one of the most effective and well-known min-
isters in Chicago. For Ransom, working for God was synonymous
with working on behalf of humanity. He asserted that an act of jus-
tice was the ability to make the gospel plain by placing the essentials
of the Christian message within a contemporary and relevant lan-
guage and context. For instance, his speeches and sermons addressed
the epidemic of mob violence and disgust with the press’s attitude.
Ransom argued that lynching was a means of social control that had
nothing to do with the maintenance of law and order. Rather, lynch-
ing allowed white Americans to maintain an unfair advantage in the
major arenas of life. Ransom admitted that African Americans could
only save themselves from these barbarities by making use of their
political power and through self-defense. While Wells stated that
every black household should have a Winchester rifle, and she herself
owned a gun, she realized, like Ransom, the potential contained in
the vote. Ransom also believed that each nation has a unique and
divinely ordained task to promote the common good. For each group,
the contribution made is influenced by the conditions under which
the group lives. Hence, Ransom stressed that the work of African
Americans had been hampered by the oppressive circumstances of life
in the United States.
Unrelenting in her determination to gather, to analyze, and to inter-
pret lynching data, Wells’s counterposition to the dominant opinion
demonstrated that responses that reflect one’s sense of duty to adhere
to the letter of the law were not necessarily synonymous with justice.
Following this line of thinking, Wells identified the hypocrisy opera-
tive in a society that would go to tremendous extremes to justify a
way of life and concluded that executions with little, if any, regard for
proof of the victim’s guilt or evidence of innocence were unethical.
Challenging “Alleged Causes”
Ida B. Wells’s third text on terrorist tactics, Mob Rule in New Orleans,
is a succinct analysis of legal complicity, silent conspiracy, and the
economics of lynching. I draw upon the following timeline1
as a basis
from which to suggest that it is highly probable that concerns about a
police-precipitated incident that fueled extreme mob brutality, with-
out intervention from elected officials, would not have been raised
had New Orleans’s bond rating not been adversely impacted:
Monday, July 24, 1900—at approximately 10:30 p.m. police instigated●
an unwarranted assault against two colored men sitting outside a resi-
dence on Dryades St.
Tuesday, July 25, 1900—manhunt located Charles, between 2:30 and●
5:00 a.m., at 2023 4th Street; an unidentified innocent man subjected
to mob rule; two officers killed.
Wednesday, July 26, 1900—manhunt continued as rampant lawless-●
Thursday, July 27, 1900—mob rule continued.●
Friday, July 28, 1900—concern surfaces regarding financial impact of●
mob rule as rioting continued; house in which Charles hid set on fire
by besiegers, forcing Charles to confront the mob who riddled his body
In his analysis of the crisis of the new South, historian Edward L.
Ayers’s description of what he described as deliberately orchestrated
insanity suggests that whites were not necessarily conscious that they
were, in effect, responsible for the chaotic fear-based society in which
they were the primary architects. According to Ayers, “[W]hites, it
seems fair to say, did not know they were battling a foe of their own
After all, as Ayers explained, “when white Southerners
70 Ethical Complications of Lynching
read of a widely publicized lynching...they automatically assumed
that a rape had indeed occurred and began to look for warnings of
the crime in their own community.” Tangible proof was not required.
“The ‘insolence’ of local blacks, the appearance of a ‘strange nig-
ger,’ a rash of breaking and entering—all could be taken as evidence
that an ‘outrage’ might be imminent.” For this reason, “every accusa-
tion, every suspicion, every lynching of an innocent ‘rapist’ echoed
throughout the South, so that all sense of proportion disappeared.”3
Wells illustrated quite effectively that from the perspective of law
enforcement officials, the issue at hand more often than not dictated
that a public image be maintained by whatever means necessary. The
evidence, according to Wells, indicated that “legal sanction was given
to the mob to kill Charles at sight by the Mayor of New Orleans, who
publicly proclaimed a reward of two hundred and fifty dollars, not
for the arrest of Charles, not at all, but the reward was offered for
Charles’ body, dead or alive.”4
Does it stand to reason that to lie, then,
is to ensure that a prescribed way of life will not be interrupted?
People lie for different reasons. But once set in motion, initiators
must continue to build upon the fabrication in order to safeguard
their public persona. All too frequently this means that persons will
go to extreme measures to misrepresent the facts. When this occurs,
alleged accusers rarely consider the impact that falsification of details
will have upon families and communities. The supposed victim, in
most cases, is also oblivious to what could occur should the truth of
the matter be discovered or revealed at some future time. This line of
thinking demonstrates that “to deny either the irrationality or ratio-
nality of lynching...is to miss its essence” since “lynching was mad-
ness, but with a method,”5
as Ayers’s research confirmed.
In a context where provocation by authority figures fueled unmiti-
gated terror without fear of retribution it is perhaps no coincidence
as Brundage, concurring with Wells, noted that “at work stirring up
mobs and focusing their wrath upon certain targets were social, eco-
nomic, and political concerns rooted in the dramatic changes that
the South underwent between 1865 and 1930.”6
Echoing the prophet
Habakkuk (2.2b), Wells’s stated purpose for documenting this par-
ticular incident and providing supporting statistics is to “present the
facts in a plain, unvarnished, connected way, so that he who runs may
According to Wells, an unpredictable meeting resulted in many
individuals combining forces to destroy Robert Charles who, from
all accounts, was guilty of daring to defend himself against arrogant
Challenging “Alleged Causes” 71
and lawless policemen. Wells identified some of the excessive actions
that mobs employed to exact punishment and to dehumanize blacks
that, in my opinion, are best described as the heat of white hatred.
During the entire time the mob held the city in its hands and went
about holding up street cars and searching them, taking from them
colored men to assault, shoot and kill, chasing colored men upon the
public square, through alleys and into houses of anybody who would
take them in, breaking into the homes of defenseless colored men and
women and beating aged and decrepit men and women to death, the
police and the legally-constituted authorities showed plainly where
their sympathies were, for in no case reported through the daily papers
does there appear the arrest, trial and conviction of one of the mob for
any of the brutalities which occurred.8
The aforementioned description comes close to representing what
Brundage, in his chapter on mobs and ritual, categorized as a mass
“Mass mobs,” as Brundage explained, “were the most spec-
tacular type of mob and potentially included anyone who wanted to
In his extensive research that spanned more than fifty
years, Brundage presented compelling evidence to support his argu-
ment that lynchings and mobs were not synonymous. He suggested
that lynching was the by-product of mob activity.
When she described the fury in New Orleans, Wells observed
that “the whole city was at the mercy of the mob and the display of
brutality was a disgrace to civilization.”11
Mob activity had indeed
precipitated lynching. She recounted that “unable to vent its vindic-
tiveness and bloodthirsty vengeance upon Charles, the mob turned
its attention to other colored men who happened to get in the path
of its fury. Even colored women, as has happened many times before,
were assaulted and beaten and killed by the brutal hoodlums who
thronged the streets.”12
The following summary highlights numer-
ous accounts that occurred over this five-day period of orchestrated
Shocking brutality, manifested in multiple occurrences of senseless
cruelty, illustrated the insane behavior that characterizes mob rule.
Examples of deplorable viciousness scattered the path from the inte-
rior sector of the French Quarter to the levees that protect the city from
the mighty Mississippi. But no one protected the victim in the market.
After all, mob members could brag about their exploits without fear
72 Ethical Complications of Lynching
of police intervention or arrest. The beating of a defenseless seventy
five year old man was a painful reminder that no colored person was
beyond the mob’s reach. And for fun in Gretna, blacks were chased
for sport. The mob’s energy spread across the river and prompted this
small town’s mayor to validate tyranny.13
It is little wonder that Wells also emphasized that freedom of speech
was not synonymous with freedom to speak against mob rule, orches-
trated brutality, or legal corruption. In other words, she stressed that
we must remember that “it is now, even as it was in the days of slav-
ery, an unpardonable sin for a Negro to resist a white man, no matter
how unjust or unprovoked the white man’s attack may be.”14
mob reigned and there was little that its victims could do to protect
themselves in the aftermath that followed Robert Charles’s initial
encounter with two New Orleans policemen.
Wells found it “almost past belief to read that civilized white peo-
ple, men who boast of their chivalry and blue blood, actually had
fun in beating, chasing and shooting men who had no possible con-
nection with any crime.”15
At the same time, her assessment raises
several questions. For example, did Wells mean that mob activity
could be justified if employed against individuals who were con-
nected with criminal activity? This, of course, demands that we ask
who determines what constitutes a crime. The ambiguity of her state-
ment also requires that we consider how formal and informal types
of authority influence moral responses at both the individual- and
Even with these questions, I would suggest that Wells sought, in
her conclusion, to underscore that silence did not absolve those who
were in a position to confront the mob with their responsibility for
what they knew was happening. From Wells’s perspective, silence
only encouraged the horrific displays of injustice. In response to a
hypothetical question about mobs: “Men and women of America, are
you proud of this record which the Anglo-Saxon race has made for
she responded: “Your silence seems to say that you are. Your
silence encourages a continuance of this sort of horror. Only by ear-
nest, active, united endeavor to arouse public sentiment can we hope
to put a stop to these demonstrations of American barbarism.”17
Due to the attention given to provide the minutest details related to
the furor surrounding Charles, Wells used information contained in
the New Orleans Times Picayune and New Orleans Times-Democrat.
Wells used these sources to analyze events initiated by the abuse
Challenging “Alleged Causes” 73
of power and sustained by mob furor over a five-day period from
Monday to Friday, July 24–28, 1900. She acknowledged that both
papers, “in their editorial comment they were at all times most urgent
in their defense of law and in the strongest terms they condemned the
infamous work of the mob.”18
But she also pointed out inconsisten-
cies in the Picayune’s and the Times-Democrat’s descriptions of the
occurrence that sparked this almost one-week spree of violence. She
conducted her own investigation in order to present another perspec-
tive on the protagonist’s encounter with individuals empowered to
carry out the city’s ordinances. Wells found that “the Times-Democrat
unguardedly states that one of the two colored men tried to run away;
that Mora seized him and then drew his billy and struck him on the
head; that Charles broke away from him and started to run, after
which the shooting began.” Yet, as she noted, “the Picayune, how-
ever, declares that Pierce began the firing and that his two shots point
blank at Aucoin were the first shots of the fight.”19
In his history of lynching, Cutler also addressed errors in lynch sta-
tistics. In particular, he explained that “anyone who has endeavored to
sift the truth from conflicting newspaper reports will readily appreci-
ate the difficulty of obtaining an accurate account of a lynching from
such a source.”20
To justify his use of the statistics compiled by the
Chicago Tribune, Cutler reasoned that the reporter did not have any
motive to exaggerate the facts nor was there any reason to doubt that a
publisher would report known lynchings. However, in this account of
Charles, Wells argued that the initial stories printed by New Orleans’s
two major newspapers “attempted to fix the beginning of the hostili-
ties upon the colored men, but both were compelled to admit that the
colored men were sitting on the doorsteps quietly conversing with one
another when the three policemen went up and accosted them.”21
When she reviewed the contradictory news reports, Wells’s analy-
sis revealed that public opinion often informed the media’s approach
to reporting what was subsequently perceived as truth. She spe-
cifically concluded that in this particular instance, some journal-
ists “substituted fiction for facts in their attempt to prove Charles
Wells noted that the New Orleans Times-Democrat
described Charles as a “ravisher and a daredevil” or a “fiend in human
According to Wells, rather than admit that law enforcement
personnel behaved inappropriately, some reporters “gave full license
to their imagination and distorted the facts that they had obtained, in
every way possible, to prove a course of criminality, which the records
absolutely refuse to show.”24
74 Ethical Complications of Lynching
Wells presented reports of other uncontested lynch burnings from
1891 to 1899. Her investigation indicated that what occurred in New
Orleans was not an anomaly. Cutler concurred with her and provided
a summary related to the twenty-two human burnings for the years
1884–1904. In addition, Wells did not dispute the fact that Charles
fatally wounded several individuals. She did, however, point out that
the initial altercation and subsequent actions occurred because Charles
chose to defy rules of southern culture. That is, rather than acqui-
esce when approached by a member of the majority culture, Charles
elected to exercise agency when he responded to a white man. Wells’s
evaluation of the facts suggested that Charles resolved to die fighting
rather than to participate in the mockery of justice that would inevita-
bly accompany his surrender. Although protection by public servants
was not an option for Charles, Wells stressed that “the Negro asks
only justice and an impartial consideration of these facts”25
to combat the atrocities of lynch law.
Wells understood the intricate connection between the personal
and the political. She recognized that silence and secrecy provided
little, if any, distinction between the private and the public. An exam-
ination of her life, through a detailed reading of some of her published
works, indicates that Wells realized from a young age the importance
of questioning established practices. A trailblazer, her determination
to read the red record of lynching, coupled with her ability to exam-
ine human response within a context of terror, suggests that she was
more than a verbal footnote. She was a woman with whom to be reck-
oned. She examined the facts, confronted biased systems, and pre-
sented a version of a shared story that many in America preferred not
to address. Wells’s analysis of the pervasiveness of lynching in the late
nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries led her to conclude that the
United States was a fragmented republic whose leaders had a vested
interest to maintain a system that began unjustly so that a few could
continue to benefit at the expense and annihilation of many.
Beyond Rope and Fagot:
A Womanist Ethical Analysis
When language is used to manipulate public-private response we can use graphic
depictions to examine the manner in which unrevealed actions function as indicators
of culturally endorsed moral behavior.
—Angela D. Sims
Ida B. Wells, described as a “fiery reformer, feminist, and race
was depicted “over and over again as militant, courageous,
determined, impassioned, and aggressive in newspapers, magazines,
journals, and books of the period from 1890 to 1931.”2
for example, the following excerpts from the Kansas City Times
attributed to members of the Ministerial Alliance of Kansas City:
...the sensational Negro lecturer, on lynching in the South.(a)
...the agitator be given a fair and impartial hearing wherever she(b)
...this Negress, who was,..., by her intemperance, doing more harm(c)
to her race, and plainly stirring up the very passions she claimed to be
anxious to subdue.3
76 Ethical Complications of Lynching
Characterizations about Wells can be attributed in part, perhaps, to
her forthright communication style. But in other ways, portrayals
of Wells highlight some of the challenges that she faced as a single
who sought to give the world a detailed account of
Self-identifying as a journalist, Wells used a combination of
practices as interpretive tools to document the causes of lynching
in America in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries.
Attention to her use of information compiled by leading newspapers
of the time, for example, the Chicago Tribune, is discussed in detail
in part two. Wells also went to lynch sites. She was conscious, though,
that some black male journalists “accused her of jumping in ahead
of them and doing work without giving them a chance.”5
her African-American male colleagues neglected to investigate an
early twentieth-century lynching in Illinois, Wells, at the insistence
of her husband, went because “nobody else will.”6
In addition, she
realized that she could assist vulnerable residents of the city in which
the lynching occurred. During her site visit to this Illinois lynch site,
Wells informed a group of concerned black residents that she
had come down to be their mouthpiece;...correctly understood how
hard it would be for those who lived there to take an active part in the
movement to oust the sheriff;...willing to take the lead in the matter
but they must give me the facts; that it would be endangering the lives
of other colored people in Illinois if we did not take a stand against the
all too frequent lynchings which were taking place.7
Wells addressed the hypocrisy that fueled this American practice
and understood, as Dora Apel rightly surmised, that “lynching was
used as a weapon to terrorize the black community as a whole in
both racial and gender terms. It was an instrument of social discipline
intended to impress all who saw or heard about it, not merely to punish
the victim; thus innocent black men were sometimes substituted when
a fugitive could not be found.”8
Concurring with Wells and Apel,
Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck’s research of ten southern states
makes clear that “mob violence represents a dramatic and profoundly
important public manifestation of social control of its citizenry of
color and offers an opportunity to investigate the social, economic,
and political dynamics that produced a period so ripe with racial
In Black Womanist Ethics, Katie Geneva Cannon stresses
that “racism, gender discrimination and economic exploitation, as
Beyond Rope and Fagot 77
inherited, age-long complexes, require the Black community to create
and cultivate values and virtues in their own terms so that they can
prevail against the odds with moral integrity.”10
For the aforementioned reason, what we receive from Wells is not
just a collection of lynching narratives. She asks that we consider the
ways in which an inherited theological tradition continues to remain
silent about injustices that are sanctioned by its doctrines. One chal-
lenge, however, is the ability to recognize how symbolic representa-
tions of rope and fagot are disguised, for example, as economics of
racism that are essential to the maintenance of the prison industrial
complex and the exploitation of children in foster care systems as
multiple sources of what I term black gold that ignores the percentage
of children of color who are targeted to populate juvenile and adult
While some might disagree with this metaphori-
cal application of lynching,12
Clarke explains that “court-ordered
executions carried out under first local, then state, authority gradu-
ally took the place of lynchings in the early decades of the twentieth
Eliza Steelwater, on the other hand, provides this descrip-
tion of a twenty-first-century lynch scene:
Gallows Hill, its ten thousand spectators, and its drawn-out spectacle
of suffering belong to the past. But the hangman’s knot goes on being
tied—in a room within a building within a compound. The room is
windowless, brightly fluorescent, divided in two by Plexiglas and a
curtain. On one side are a dozen people, on the other side one. We’ve
regularized and sanitized until we’re down to white tiles, a gurney, and
an intravenous drip. What was an event has been downgraded to an
occurrence, then to the parody of a therapeutic procedure.14
The number of innocent individuals who populate jails and prisons
in the United States is, like the number of people lynched, unknown.15
In recent years, several states placed a moratorium on executions based
on a review of data that indicated prosecutorial and law enforcement
Without question, Wells provided numerous examples
that revealed some of the residual effects of lynching on passive par-
ticipants in the death-dealing act of lynching.
Wells’s determination to give the world an unvarnished account of
the impact of this most despicable form of hatred is an ethical analy-
sis that addressed the interconnectedness of lynching to race, gender,
and economics. Her ability to juxtapose subcultures, especially pre-
conceived ideas about women that polarized and further fragmented
78 Ethical Complications of Lynching
communities, against a larger context cast lynching as a significant
aspect of this country’s public sphere. What Wells’s examination ulti-
mately asks is that we consider how socially constructed categoriza-
tions of race and gender shape individual and communal responses
related to issues of justice.
The Issue of Race and Lynching
Decades before Alice Walker coined the term womanist that Katie
Geneva Cannon and others appropriated theologically, Wells’s tenac-
ity to investigate lynching was, from my vantage point, a gift from
God. In fact, her ability to find “truths where everyone else seems
afraid to look”1
is a trait typically shared among individuals who
deliberately probe beneath the surface of an issue in order to better
understand how the interrelatedness of various dynamics of race, gen-
der, and lynching operate to obscure lessons about strength and hope.
For this reason, Wells was convinced that “the Afro-American papers
are the only ones which will print the truth, and they lack means to
employ agents and detectives to get at the facts. The race must rally a
mighty host to the support of their journals, and thus enable them to
do much in the way of investigation.”2
Due to her stance, no aspect of society was exempt from Wells’s
as highlighted in her assessment of African-American apa-
thy toward lynching. In a February 18, 1893 article, “The Reign of
Mob Law,” written for publication in the New York Age,4
questions about the limited involvement of blacks in the fight against
lynching. She vehemently asserted that
our race still sits and does nothing about it and says little except to
doubt the expediency of or find fault with the remedy proposed. No
plan of raising money by which the things can be investigated, the
country arpused [aroused] and the temple of justice, the pulpit and
the press besieged until public opinion shall demand a cessation of the
reign of barbarism, lynch law and stake burnings.5
From interviews with various individuals who were directly or
indirectly impacted by “routine and systematic efforts to subjugate
80 Ethical Complications of Lynching
the African-American minority,”6
Wells subsequently evaluated fac-
that influenced the manner in which individuals reacted in an
environment sustained and maintained by fear. Speaking on behalf
of African Americans, Wells noted that “it is his [sic] regret, that, in
his [sic] own defense, he [sic] must disclose to the world that degree
of dehumanizing brutality which fixes upon America the blot of a
She observed correctly that the responsibility to dis-
prove the public image presented by and about African Americans
rested with them, for national sentiment was such that the fate of
the majority of alleged victims was “death at the hands of unknown
This was the case even in states where some form of anti-lynching
legislature was in place. For instance, Illinois passed a bill in 1905
that, among other conditions, “provided for the suppression of mob
violence, not only by punishment of those who incited lynchings,
but provided for damages against the City and County permitting
In addition, Wells’s subsequent evaluation of a 1907
lynching in Springfield, Illinois, illustrated that legislation alone
could not guarantee just and equitable treatment. In this particular
situation, she mentioned that
the men lynched then were not prisoners in the custody of the Sheriff,
but peaceable, lawabiding citizens whom the mob lynched at their
homes for the fun of it. Because of the dangerous public sentiment,
which says it is all right to kill so long as the victim is a Negro, no jury
has been found in Springfield to convict any of those who were tried
for that lynching and murder.10
Even though, as sociologists Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck point
out in their study of lynching, “relatively little was known about the
underlying forces that drove southern society to such extreme and
Wells not only reported the facts, she rendered an
ethical commentary that revealed that lynching was a gross violation
of human rights.
Ida B. Wells was adamant that “the race problems or negro question,
as it has been called, has been omnipresent and all-pervading since
long before the Afro-American was raised from the degradation of
the slave to the dignity of the citizen. It has never been settled because
the right methods have not been employed in the solution.”12
and Beck assert that “the premier indicator of status within southern
society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was
The Issue of Race and Lynching 81
According to historian John Hope Franklin, “during
the brief span of three and one-half centuries of colonial and national
history Americans developed traditions and prejudices which created
the two worlds of race in modern America.”14
And art historian Dora
Apel, in her introduction to Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White
Women, and the Mob, adamantly declares that “the transformation
of the nation that came with the emancipation of African American
slaves began a process of redefining race and identity that has been
the central social conflict in America ever since.”15
is perhaps no accident that a legal definition of race is a “great divi-
sion of mankind [sic] having in common certain distinguishing physi-
cal peculiarities constituting a comprehensive class appearing to be
derived from a distinct primitive stock.”16
In his study on race relations in the United States, political scien-
tist James W. Clarke notes that “racial lynchings began in the South
shortly after emancipation and reflected the new vulnerability of free
Historian Fitzhugh Brundage agrees with Clarke but also
reminds us that “lynching in the American South during the late nine-
teenth and early twentieth century was but one manifestation of the
strenuous and bloody campaign by whites to elaborate and impose a
racial hierarchy upon people of color throughout the globe.”18
attitude paved the way for southern horrors and mob violence to
become perceived as normative and subsequently enforced by fear in
order to justify a desired lifestyle based on race. Unfortunately, to
ensure this sustained practice as a viable tool to achieve a desired
outcome, a rite of passage often required children to witness lynch-
ing. According to Apel, “the participation of women and the early
initiation of white children were also noted by the press. School might
be let out to allow children to attend a lynching, or the day’s rou-
tine delayed until pupils returned from viewing a lynch victim.”19
Apel also correctly notes that although “early antilynching crusades
stressed the emotional damage that mob violence had on children,
many learned the intended lesson and continued in the violent tradi-
tion of their forebears.”20
While Wells did not specifically address the
long-term implications of lynching on children, she did include photos
of two lynching scenes in A Red Record.
At first glance, the photos are remarkably similar. We are given
little information, other than the date and site of the lynchings,
July 7, 1893 at Bardwell, Kentucky, and August 21, 1891 at Clanton,
Alabama, to distinguish the two scenes. The only other identifying
information noted is C. J. Miller, the name of the man who died at the
82 Ethical Complications of Lynching
hands of unknown persons in 1893. But what we are given is a visual
depiction from which to explore the moral complexity that existed in
a society that did not think it unusual to gather at a lynching cross.
Both photos appear to be staged for the unidentified photographer.
Unlike the second photo in which the lynched victim is fully dressed,
the lynched victim in the first picture is clothed only in a loin cloth.
Whereas the victim in the first photo was suspended from the ground
by a linked chain attached to a tree, the lynched man in the other
picture appears to be suspended from a tree by a rope.
In these two lynchings, men gathered with boys at the foot of a
cross to participate in a tradition that reflected that their sense of
personhood was shaped by learned behavior that was intricately
connected to the vile dehumanization of someone deemed less than
human. With the exception of one girl in the second photo, there is
an obvious absence of female spectators. And yet, the women were
there—represented by their sons, their partners, their brothers, their
uncles, their cousins, their nephews, their neighbors, their pastors,
and their friends. As such, white males gathered to participate in a
sacrificial ritual condoned by members of their respective commu-
nities. Lynching spectators gathered to perpetuate a practice whose
existence depended on the passing down of hatred from one genera-
tion to the next. They lynched because they could, without fear of
retaliation, kill at will.
In contrast to this mode of indoctrination, Tolnay and Beck point
out that “Blacks never knew when whites would interpret the most
innocent or trivial of behavior—an impertinent glance, ill-advised
stare, or surly word—as insolent or threatening and worthy of bru-
tal retribution. This meant that many African-Americans lived at the
discretion of the white community and its whims.”21
highlights that survival for African Americans, in a fear-induced soci-
ety where nooses represent racially condoned hatred, necessitates an
ability to interpret and to respond in a prescribed manner to unwrit-
ten rules that govern the communities in which they live. Race, a
socially constructed designator, is used as one way to distinguish
groups of people.
Almost a century after Wells articulated her chilling assess-
ment about the plight of blacks in America,22
then University of
Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson stated, in a 1998 dialogue
on issues of whiteness hosted by National Public Radio, that “people
have gotten into a habit in the twentieth century of making being
white the normal state of affairs, the condition of a regular person.
The Issue of Race and Lynching 83
Race, then, is used as a marker to describe people who are set apart
from that normality. We use race as a label of non-whiteness.”23
other words, “racial divisions,” as Apel points out, “were regarded as
natural and unchanging categories” and “the very practice of legally
defining ‘white’ and ‘black’ created racial identities.”24
At issue is a fallacy wherein “the burden of race,” as Dyson’s com-
ment suggests, “is that one is forever fixed by external categories that
people impose on you.”25
In other words “race functions as social
categorization, politically constructed categorization,”26
McIntosh, agreeing with Dyson’s sentiment, stresses. To further com-
plicate this dilemma of race Glenda Gilmore points out that “in the
1890s, southern middle-class white men embraced the racialization of
manhood—so international, so scientific, so modern—and put it to
work on their own backyards.”27
Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen
Thompson provide some insight into the scientific justification for
racial designators. Hine and Thompson rightfully contend that “an
unholy alliance was formed between southern racist politicians and
northern academics. Scientists and social scientists began to support
race mythology with spurious ‘research’ and ‘scientific’ theories.
White supremacy, they declared, was the natural and desirable order
of things. To interfere with it was to stand in the way of progress.”28
It is imperative that we do not underestimate how race functions,
in a nation whose founding document states that “we hold these
truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among
these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” as a vehicle to
engineer and to justify lynching in the United States of America. As
one example, Wells’s social analysis illustrates primarily that “white
men who had created a race of mulattoes by raping and consorting
with Negro women were still doing so wherever they could, these
same white men lynched, burned, and tortured Negro men for doing
the same thing with white women; even when the white women were
Apel’s analysis on the public display of lynching
and the mob reemphasizes Wells’s assessment. Apel explains that “the
practice of lynching attempted to preserve and reinforce by extrale-
gal means the racial hierarchies that were no longer sanctioned by
slavery in order to assure the continuity of community class struc-
tures. Upper-class and poor whites united against blacks, who were
isolated in a color caste system and forcibly kept at the bottom of the
In addition to Apel’s evaluation on the interrelatedness
of race and lynching, Tolnay and Beck’s research on race as a social
84 Ethical Complications of Lynching
construction demonstrates that in order “to maintain a stable white
class structure it was necessary to construct a vigorous racial caste
system. Reinforcing the caste boundary and affirming white racial
superiority diminished the odds that an alienated white lower class
might unite with blacks to challenge the privileged position of influ-
Finally, we must remember, as Franklin articulates
so vividly, that “the most powerful direct force in the maintenance of
the two worlds of race has been the state and its political subdivisions.
In states and communities where racial separation and discrimina-
tion are basic to the way of life, the elected officials invariably pledge
themselves to the perpetuation of the duality.”32
In the United States, this system of racial stratification is perpet-
uated by policies that reinforce the objectification of Americans of
In effect, as Tolnay and Beck’s research on lynch-
[t]he civil rights that whites enjoyed were rarely extended to blacks
because of the racism that permeated so much of southern culture.
This meant, among other things, that whites could harass and assault
blacks with little fear of the legal consequences of aggression. Southern
racist ideology produced a moral and legal system that had only weak
constraints against violence targeted at blacks. Often blacks were con-
sidered legitimate, and even deserving, objects for white wrath.34
Therefore, we should not be surprised that it will take more than leg-
islative initiatives to reverse a tendency to view former slaves and their
descendants as fully human. Without a doubt, as Franklin’s research
on race and history in the United States demonstrates, “white south-
erners have also summoned history to support them in their resistance
to federal legislation designed to secure the civil rights of Negroes.”35
Franklin’s claim challenges us to understand how
[t]he heavy hand of history has been a powerful force in the main-
tenance of a segregated society and, conversely, in the resistance to
change. Americans, especially southerners whose devotion to the
past is unmatched by that of any others, have summoned history to
support their arguments that age-old practices and institutions can-
not be changed overnight, that social practices cannot be changed by
In other words, “the way to make absolutely certain that the status
of blacks would not change was to institutionalize and legalize
The Issue of Race and Lynching 85
their subordinate and degraded place in southern life”;37
trates the complexity of the race and lynching issue in American
Tolnay and Beck remind us that “in principle, all whites were
superior to all African-Americans, and the rigidity of the caste line
separating the races assured even the poorest of whites this one
taste of superiority.”38
Thus, it is imperative that we remember that
“lynching was a public celebration of whites’ contemptuous disre-
gard for black lives, and all too commonly African-Americans were
beyond the protective umbrella of law, stranded far outside the due
process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”39
this historical knowledge Cannon insists we must not underestimate
how “toughmindedness allows one to stand up amid a system that
oppresses her/him and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of
one’s own value.”40
It is important, then, that we look at some of the
ways that blacks and other anti-lynching apologists coped in a soci-
ety that was adamantly opposed to recognizing the humanity of its
Michele Wallace, a visual historian, identifies three “cultural
practices that made it possible for blacks to live under the regime”41
of lynching. These strategies—“passing; integrity, beauty, and aes-
thetic fortitude; literature”42
—reflect a remarkable quality to survive.
Indeed, as Wallace postulates, “no one knows how many black peo-
ple who were sufficiently racially mixed in origin to look white passed
on a periodic and strategic basis,...No one knows either how many
black people passed over permanently into the white community to
escape the constant threat of harassment and violence.”43
Wallace questions historical representations that depict recently
emancipated persons as complaisant and docile. While this may cer-
tainly have been the case for some, Wallace argues that “the violent
response of whites in the rural South where black populations were
concentrated was a direct reaction to black people’s dogged and
persistent sense of entitlement to land, to dignity, to justice.”44
means to survive, blacks turned to the arts in a manner that reflected
an awareness of strategies that emerged during slavery as a means to
communicate with and to encourage each other.
From the music—most notably blues, jazz, and gospel—to visual
representations—such as quilts, pottery, and wood carvings—blacks
sought creative ways to move beyond imposed categorizations in order
to give expression to their sense of personhood.45
were a way to communicate with each other, without necessarily
86 Ethical Complications of Lynching
drawing attention to themselves that “trouble would not last always.”
The music was not so much about the beat as it was an avenue to give
expression to the particularity of the situation in which lynching was
tolerated. Piecing a quilt became a communal affair whereby individ-
uals, mostly females, gathered with their “scraps” to stitch a shared
The quilts provided warmth in the winter but the creative
product reflected and pointed to a collective strength that continued
to surface despite often repeated attempts to diminish black represen-
tations that depicted another aspect of reality.
The third strategy that Wallace mentions is literature. Regardless
of the genre—from poetry to short stories to prayers to editorials—
writing is an avenue for blacks and those with whom they are aligned
to articulate an alternative view.47
Wells sounded an alarm regard-
ing the tendency to classify a group of people based on unsubstan-
tiated claims. For her, silence was not an option. Rather, she asks
that we question the relationship between identity and justice in a
society when extreme forms of torture become moments for public
The Social Construction of Gender
To lynch, regardless of the techniques employed, is to use terror or the
threat of torture as a control mechanism. To question this practice
of unmitigated denial of due process can be construed as a willing-
ness to die for what one believes. It is quite possible that Ida B. Wells
expected to encounter opposition when she questioned the veracity
that “Southern apologists justify their savagery on the ground that
Negroes are lynched only because of their crimes against women.”1
Her assessment about lynchings ascribed to black men’s interactions
with white women antagonized Memphis’s leading white citizens.
In her editorial response to the 1892 Memphis lynching, Wells sug-
gested that a review of the facts indicates that individuals, especially
white men, might want to reconsider the relevancy of rape to justify
lynching. Beside the fact that white men rape black women at their
discretion without risk of retaliation or fear of criminal conviction,2
Wells suggested that many of the white women who cry rape are
engaged in consensual relations with black men. Aside from the fact
that her evidence showed that rape “committed by white men against
Negro women and girls, is never punished by mob or the law,”3
also disputed the allegation that suggested that “Southern white
women have been slandered because, in defending the Negro race
from the charge that all colored men, who are lynched, only pay pen-
alty for assaulting women.” As Wells’s analysis makes clear, however,
“it is certain that lynching mobs have not only refused to give the
Negro a chance to defend himself, but have killed their victim with a
full knowledge that the relationship of the alleged assailant with the
woman who accused him was voluntary and clandestine.”4
88 Ethical Complications of Lynching
this with John Nerone’s analysis on violence against the African-
American media that reveals that “assertive African-American news-
papers were attacked, by mainstream whites, especially in the South,
for challenging white hegemony; consistent with prolynching argu-
ments, the crucial rhetorical justification for violence was the rape of
If this is the case, Wells’s account of the correlation
between the social construction of gender and lynching also suggests
that a deconstructive analysis of the “myth of womanhood,” which
is perhaps best described as a fatal attraction to white women,6
Scholar and civil rights activist Angela Y. Davis’s work on women,
race, and class is helpful to anyone who wants to understand the
ramifications associated with practices that foster a sense of white
female deification that are contingent on human objectification. Davis
unabashedly asserts that
[r]acism has always drawn strength from its ability to encourage sexual
coercion. While Black women and their sisters of color have been the
main targets of these racist-inspired attacks, white women have suf-
fered as well. For once white men were persuaded that they could com-
mit sexual assaults against Black women with impunity, their conduct
toward women of their own race could not have remained unmarred.
Racism has always served as a provocation to rape, and white women
in the United States have necessarily suffered the ricochet fire of these
attacks. This is one of the many ways in which racism nourishes sex-
ism, causing white women to be indirectly victimized by the special
oppression aimed at their sisters of color.7
In a 1993 essay “The Anatomy of a Lynching,” Robyn Wiegman
addresses the circumstances from which gender segregation emerged.
I concur with her position that
the nineteenth century’s determination of public and private along
strict gender lines thus provided a definitional structure through which
social space and familial roles were shaped for a population no lon-
ger denied the right (and privilege) of maintaining family bonds. But
while the patriarchalization of the black family served to institutional-
ize it within the gender codes prevalent in white bourgeois ideology,
thereby securing the black family to the formal dimensions of white
social behavior, many whites were decidedly threatened by the defi-
nitional sameness accorded former slaves. The loss of one patriarchal
organization of social life—that of slavery—and its replacement by
The Social Construction of Gender and Lynching 89
the seeming egalitarianism of a male-dominated black family, then,
has the effect of broadening the competitive dimensions of interracial
masculine relations, especially as the black male’s new property gover-
nance of black women threatens to extend to women of the dominant
group as well.8
To minimize the threat of lynching where “the racial and sexual
mythology of southern apartheid demanded that even consensual sex
between a black man and a white woman be punished by death,”9
Lynn Olson points out that “black males were raised never to look a
white woman in the eye, to step off the sidewalk when she came near,
to avoid any close proximity to her—in short, never to do anything
that would give her (or anybody else) the pretext for crying ‘Rape.’
Any violation of the taboo could bring terrible retribution.”10
Patricia Hill Collins also points out another aspect of the intercon-
nectedness of race and gender. Collins explains that “motherhood and
racism were symbolically intertwined, and controlling the sexuality
and fertility of both African-American and white women was essen-
tial in reproducing notions of ‘race’ as a social and cultural entity.”11
Because of this historical reality, Arthur Raper’s insight on gendered
racialization merits consideration. According to Raper,
in the postslavery South, with their own women placed at an emo-
tional and sexual remove, and black women less and less available (one
reason blacks preferred sharecropping to other labor arrangements
was that it made black women less vulnerable to ravishment by white
planters and overseers), frustrated white men developed a powerful
fear of being overwhelmed by black men’s alleged sexual insatiability.
The black man’s real “crime,” no doubt, was that he was burdened
with no historic guilt about sex with either black or white women,
and it was because he possessed this “freedom” that he was so feared
and detested. The hypocrisy of the situation couldn’t have been more
blatant, as Southern whites feverishly held the line against insatiable
“brute Negroes” and miscegenation—a race-mingling they themselves
had perpetrated, and whose result was daily evident in the faces of the
region’s great number of mixed-race children.12
The irony in how the majority culture perceives black people is
evidenced in the progeny of men who adopted, as Gilmore explains,
“a conspiracy of silence that obscured biracial people of the time from
their white contemporaries and from the historical record.”13
Dyson pointed out, in response to a caller’s question about differences
90 Ethical Complications of Lynching
in ethnic European groups in the United States, that “[whiteness] has
a kind of pulverizing homogeneity; it makes people of similar skin
the same despite those internal differences,”14
he did not address the
dynamics of race that cut across genealogical intersections when lin-
eage is traced to plantation property logs that reveal double standards
associated with racial classifications. We cannot, therefore, disregard
the fact that the tendency of whites to assign race often contradicted
visual attributes that were typically antithetical to notions of black-
ness. To address this dilemma that complicates racial classifications of
individuals who intersect constructions of black and white, Franklin
remarks that “if their color and race, their condition of servitude, and
their generally degraded position did not set them apart, the laws and
customs surrounding them more than accomplished that feat.”15
To understand the dynamics associated with the social construc-
tion of gender and lynching we must be able to identify the design and
intent of warnings that are intentionally constructed to instill fear as a
means by which to regulate human response. Since desired outcomes
are predetermined and rarely documented in writing, doers of justice
must learn how to determine what the major designers of disguised
socially deviant behavior are at risk of losing. Thus, it is extremely
important that we gain proficiency in how to assess cultural nuances.
In other words, we must, as Wells insisted, “think and act on indepen-
dent lines, remembering that after all, it is the white man’s [sic] civili-
zation and the white man’s [sic] government which are on trial.”16
course, this will most certainly require that we identify central figures
so that we can understand how manipulation is used to create subcul-
tures and stratified layers of interpersonal interaction. To accomplish
this, Wells encourages us to establish working relationships for she
recognized that “there are many agencies which may be enlisted in
such as human rights organizations or religious institu-
tions, in order to solicit support in the “crusade for justice.”
The Intersection of Economics and Lynching
At the root of the mob’s action is a desire to exploit the black com-
munity by using violent acts in order to control the distribution of
goods and services. Ida B. Wells’s determination to critique south-
ern horrors associated with mob rule and legally sanctioned acts of
domestic terror led to the destruction of her newspaper, The Free
Speech. While typical acts linked to mob rule—denial of due pro-
cess, lynching, burning, maiming—were not foreign to Wells, it took
a personal encounter with violence to awaken her to the reality of
the complexity of counterresponses to injustice in a multifaceted
fragmented system that fuels economic exploitation. Wells explained
that her investigation of lynching led her to believe that “the more I
studied the situation, the more I was convinced that the Southerner
had never gotten over his [sic] resentment that the Negro was no
longer his [sic] plaything, his [sic] servant, and his [sic] source of
In her evaluation of the events leading up to the March 9, 1892
Memphis lynching, Wells provided details to substantiate this claim.
For instance, Wells noted that the People’s Grocery, owned and man-
aged by three black men, was financially backed by approximately
ten shareholders. She also stated that this business was located in a
predominantly black suburb, a few miles outside Memphis’s city lim-
its and thus outside the stated boundaries for services provided by the
city’s law enforcement officials. In addition to this basic demographic
information, Wells said that this black-owned business “flourished,
and that of Barrett, a white grocer who kept store there before the
‘People’s Grocery’ was established, went down.”2
In a provocation initiated by Barrett, in which he subsequently
alleged that he was assaulted by an owner of the People’s Grocery,
92 Ethical Complications of Lynching
Wells indicated that “Barrett then threatened (to use his own words)
that he was going to clean out the whole store.”3
The owners, accord-
ing to Wells, “knowing how anxious he (Barrett) was to destroy
their business, consulted a lawyer who told them they were justified
in defending themselves if attacked, as they were a mile beyond city
limits and police protection.”4
It would not matter that when these
black men discovered “they had fired upon officers of the law, they
threw away their firearms and submitted to arrest, confident they
should establish their innocence of intent to fire upon officers of the
Moss, McDowell, Stewart, and other black Memphians soon
realized that their “confidence and pride in their city and the majesty
of its laws”6
did not exempt them from the far-reaching arm of the
mob that had already resulted in “lynchings and brutal outrages of all
in Tennessee. In researching the events leading up to the afore-
referenced lynching, Wells collected enough evidence to conclude that
racist attitudes regarding fair business practices was a major factor in
the mob’s actions.
According to Tolnay and Beck, “poor whites lynched African-
Americans because they represented a threat to economic well being.”8
At the same time, Tolnay and Beck suggest that there is no doubt that
“the white elite also had economic motives for encouraging, or mini-
mally not discouraging, mob violence.”9
Although their study focuses
primarily on the role of “king cotton” in the dominant southern pro-
ducing states from 1882 to 1930, Tolnay and Beck provide helpful
insight into the intersection of lynching and economics. From their
research, they determined that “lynchings helped preserve the hier-
archical arrangement that ordered relations between white employers
and black workers. Whenever that arrangement was challenged, it
threatened the economic hegemony of the white elite and increased
the probability of mob violence to restore racial order.”10
Beck also reported that “there is ample reason to believe that African-
Americans may have been lynched because they represented an eco-
nomic threat to white southerners. It is also very likely that poor
whites and the white elite alike attempted to neutralize these threats
by resorting to mob violence, although their specific motivations were
Angela Davis explains that “lynching was undisguised counterin-
surgency, a guarantee that Black people would not be able to achieve
their goals of citizenship and economic equality.”12
In other words, as
Wells’s account of the 1892 Memphis lynching revealed, “these men
The Intersection of Economics and Lynching 93
were murdered, their stock was attached by creditors and sold for less
than one-eighth of its cost to that same man Barrett, who is to-day
running his grocery in the same place. He had indeed kept his word,
and by aid of the authorities destroyed the People’s Grocery Company
root and branch.”13
When this tactic is employed, the intimidators’
success is usually contingent on the ability to thwart minority aspira-
tions by consistently relying on law enforcement officials to sanction
the mob’s destructive behavior.
In the case of her friend’s lynching, we glean some insight into
how law officials consciously participate in deciding the continu-
ance of a business and/or in responding to the disruption of business
operations. Instead of ignoring or dismissing the tension that often
accompanies issues related to social inequities, Wells suggests that it
is important that we realize that the intersection of economics and
lynching is designed to deter minority business development. She
noted that “although these men were peaceable, law-abiding citizens
of this country, we are told there can be no punishment for their
murderers nor indemnity for their relatives.”14
This response by
elected law officials to vigilantism represents what Wells described
as a “first object lesson in the doctrine of white supremacy; an illus-
tration of the South’s cardinal principle that no matter what the
attainments, character or standing of an Afro-American, the laws
of the South will not protect him against a white man [sic].”15
mitigate mob reign there were few options that blacks could exercise
without fear that they would not only jeopardize their safety but
subject their families and communities to vicious displays of bar-
barism. Consequently, for some, the only choice was to limit their
purchases, as an act of resistance, at white-owned businesses that
sanctioned lynching. In this way, blacks could determine ways in
which to challenge prevailing practices without being perceived as
Wells understood that this course of action could contrib-
ute to a reduction in lynching. She was very much aware, as she
to Northern capital and Afro-American labor the South owes its reha-
bilitation. If labor is withdrawn capital will not remain. The Afro-
American is thus the backbone of the South. A thorough knowledge
and judicious exercise of power in lynching localities could many times
effect a bloodless revolution. The white man’s dollar is his god, and to
stop this will be to stop outrages in many localities.16
94 Ethical Complications of Lynching
For others, relocation is a viable act of resistance. According to Wells,
many black Memphians exercised this option. In response to the city’s
inability to prosecute anyone connected with the lynching of Moss,
McDowell, and Stewart, Wells reports that “in two months, six thou-
sand persons had left the city and every branch of business began to
feel this silent resentment of the outrage, and failure of the authorities
to punish the lynchers. There were a number of business failures and
blocks of houses were for rent.”17
To address this economic situa-
tion precipitated by a lynching, Wells came to realize that in order
“to restore the equilibrium and put a stop to the great financial loss,
the next move was to get rid of the Free Speech,—the disturbing ele-
ment which kept the waters troubled; which would not let the people
forget, and in obedience to whose advice nearly six thousand persons
had left the city.”18
The aforementioned statement clearly demonstrates that Wells was
not beyond the reach of the mob. This was substantiated in inter-
views conducted by Dr. Floyd Crawford more than seventy years after
the threat was uttered. In his 1963 correspondence with Alfreda M.
Duster, Crawford stated that information that he received from Mr.
Matthew Thornton, “who was about nineteen in 1892,” and Mr.
Fred Hutchins, “who was four years old in 1892, but whose par-
ents had told him a plenty about it,” was “different from what he
had been given heretofore.”19
Crawford told Wells’s daughter that
Thornton and Hutchins shared with him that “after her stinging edi-
torial appeared, she left town for safety upon the advice and urging of
her colored friends; and that the mob which destroyed her plant really
had intended also to seize her, take her into the heart of Memphis, tie
her, and whip her to death.”20
There is little doubt that Wells recognized that this declaration
also expressed the extreme measures that individuals would employ
to “subject to a condition of civil and industrial dependence, those
whom the Constitution declares to be free men [sic].”21
Wells’s assessment of the situation suggests that “persons unfamiliar
with the condition of affairs in the Southern States do not credit the
truth when it is told them. They cannot conceive how such a con-
dition of affairs prevails so near them with steam power, telegraph
wires and printing presses in daily and hourly touch with the locali-
ties where such disorder reigns.”22
Given this reality, Wells reminds
us that “the appeal to the white man’s [sic] pocket has ever been more
effectual than all the appeals ever made to his [sic] conscience.”23
the solution to lynching is not as simple as this statement might lead
The Intersection of Economics and Lynching 95
individuals who are unfamiliar with this aspect of U.S. history to
believe. Davis brings attention to the fact that
[t]he colonization of the Southern economy by capitalists from the
North gave lynching its most vigorous impulse. If Black people, by
means of terror and violence, could remain the most brutally exploited
group within the swelling ranks of the working class, the capitalists
could enjoy a double advantage. Extra profits would result from the
superexploitation of Black labor, and white workers’ hostilities toward
their employers would be defused. White workers who assented to
lynching necessarily assumed a posture of racial solidarity with the
white men who were really their oppressors.24
In the urban South, African-American entrepreneurs in direct com-
petition with Caucasian businesses were frequently seen as a threat
to an existing standard. Tolnay and Beck stress that this oppositional
stance “created a dissonance for poor whites, who could see little
difference between themselves and blacks in terms of basic standards
of living although their caste membership told them that they were
socially, morally, biologically, and intellectually superior. Without a
clear economic claim to superiority, the caste division became even
more important as a source of status differentiation.”25
Wells’s analysis of what occurred in New Orleans during a five-day
lynching spree in 1900 also confirms that this financially motivated
correlation to lynching was not isolated to rural areas. She found that
“when the reign of mob law exerts a depressing influence upon the
stock market and city securities begin to show unsteady standing in
money centers, then the strong arm of the good white people of the
South asserts itself and order is quickly brought out of chaos.”26
cultural analysis of practices designed to control behavior indicates a
critical awareness of the interconnectedness of economics and power
in a society sustained and maintained by human exploitation and
subjugation. Wells understood lynching not only as a physical act
most commonly symbolized by the rope and fagot but she also viewed
lynching as a way to maintain and sustain a way of life.
The antidote that Wells articulated in Southern Horrors, her first
publication on lynching, is still applicable to address ethical implica-
tions associated with domestic-based terror tactics in the twenty-first
century. While her three-part solution addressed the aftermath of a
Memphis, Tennessee, lynching in which her goddaughter’s father,
Thomas Moss, was viciously killed, Wells’s call to boycott, migrate,
and write are tools that can and must be used to assess the impact of
96 Ethical Complications of Lynching
contemporary forms of lynching. This requires, however, a broader
understanding of race, gender, and economics and the role of each
in lynching in order to understand the manner in which this moral
problem continues to impact a Christian commitment to justice. Each
of these interrelated themes in Wells’s work provides insight into the
insidious nature of lynching and the manner in which we respond
in a post–9/11 society to national security concerns. Her analysis of
lynching demonstrates her realization that
repeated attacks on the life, liberty and happiness of any citizen or
class of citizens are attacks on distinctive American institutions; such
attacks imperiling as they do the foundation of government, law and
order, merit the thoughtful consideration of far-sighted Americans; not
from a standpoint of sentiment, not even so much from a standpoint of
justice to a weak race, as from a desire to preserve our institutions.27
For Wells, lynching was more than the rope and fagot. This rec-
ognition of the diverse ways in which people deliberately employ
inhumane practices as a prescriptive for desired outcomes can influ-
ence the manner in which we examine the contemporary relevance of
modern-day expressions of lynching. Whether we evaluate sentenc-
ing guidelines or nooses strategically displayed in public spaces, the
very presence of these moral dilemmas demand that we must, at some
point, determine whether we will make a commitment to participate
in a dismantling of racially genderized economic systems. Perhaps
then we can appreciate the sacrifices of individuals, such as Ida B.
Wells, who jeopardize(d) their own safety in order to present another
explanation of justice-motivated actions in an increasingly globalized
A Paradigm Shift: Resources for a
Christian Ethic of Resistance in the
Works of Ida B. Wells
We must become more conscious of the ways in which God reveals God’s self.
—Angela D. Sims
Ida B. Wells was not the only person to use lynching statistics com-
piled by the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers in the late nine-
teenth- and early twentieth century as a primary source from which
to develop an analysis of southern horrors and mob rule. This text
references the work of sociologist James Elbert Cutler. As previ-
ously noted Cutler, who earned his doctorate from Yale University,
employed a research method that modeled aspects of the approach
that Wells used more than a decade prior to his 1905 publication on
the investigation of lynching.1
Wells’s lynching assessment also emerged from and was informed
by her confrontation with the effects of lynch law during this grue-
some era in American history. A March 1892 experience of racially
motivated hatred prompted her to reconsider her position on lynch-
ing. In response to this vigilante execution, she employed her jour-
nalistic skills to critique brutal acts of cruelty. At issue for her was
98 Ethical Complications of Lynching
how to come to terms with the realization that innocent individuals
were lynched. To address this dilemma, she illustrated that lynching
pointed to a level of depravity in the United States that contradicted
attributes recognized as civilized behavior. Encouraged by Frederick
Douglass to “go, my child; you are the one to go, for you have the
story to tell,” and in response to an 1893 invitation to “air this intol-
erable condition” in the United States of “burning human beings alive
in the nineteenth century,”2
Wells presented her interpretation of the
facts to an international audience during two separate trans-Atlantic
Wells met Catherine Impey, editor of Anti-Caste, a magazine in
England that focused on segregationist issues and other human rights
in Philadelphia in 1892 at a meeting in which Wells was
the keynote speaker. This public talk prompted Impey, a Quaker,
to arrange a private conversation with Wells about lynching. Wells
recalled that “Impey was shocked over the lynching stories I told, also
the indifference to conditions which she found among the white peo-
ple in this country. She was especially hurt that this should be the fact
among those of her own sect and kin.”5
As a result of this interview,
Wells and Impey concluded that they must both continue, in their
own way, to “plug away at the evils both of us were fighting.”6
transpired was an invitation to England for Wells and the beginning
of her worldwide campaign against lynching.7
In a letter to Frederick Douglass dated March 13, 1894, Wells men-
tioned that she had “already addressed an audience of 1500 persons”8
in Liverpool during the first week of her second speaking tour to
England, Scotland, and Wales. The guest of Rev. C. F. Aked,9
Wells described as “the most popular pastor in Liverpool with the
Wells, at Aked’s request, asked Douglass to
provide letters of introduction on her behalf.11
tionally and respected by many for his work several decades earlier
on the moral dilemma of slavery in the United States, Wells communi-
cated to Douglass that Aked suggested that “if you wish for the splen-
did success of the work to write letters to all your friends in Great
Britain commending me to others.”12
In response to Wells’s request,
Douglass thanked Aked for “opening the doors of your church, and
otherwise assisting her in obtaining a hearing in England.”13
issue of lynching and Wells’s ability to counter claims that the “negro
race is a brutish one, deserving death,”14
Douglass told Aked that
“Southern papers have denounced Miss Wells and have assailed her
as an unworthy person, but I give no credit to their denunciation.
A Paradigm Shift 99
The motive for their assaults is simply to destroy the effect of her
Wells was also not the only African American to write editorials
that provided a vicarious depiction of human interaction that chal-
lenged portrayals of justice. J. C. Dukes, editor and owner of the
Montgomery Herald, a Montgomery, Alabama, black-owned news-
paper offered a scathing analysis in 1887, five years prior to Wells’s
editorial in response to the lynching of her friend Thomas Moss and
his two business partners in Memphis, Tennessee, that questioned the
validity of race-based rape as a justification for lynching. What distin-
guishes Wells from others who provided an analysis of the cause and
effect of lynching is the tripartite pragmatic strategy she recommended
that an oppressed group implement, in part or whole, as an antidote
to counter the effects of inhumane viciousness. Although designed to
address a specific moral problem and ethical dilemma—lynching—
Wells’s proposal in 1892 to boycott, migrate, and write functions as
a constructive resource for a twenty-first-century Christian ethic of
resistance to systemic violence.
Re-Orientation: Viewing Justice in a
Racially Violent World
There is a tendency by some whites to view African Americans as
insignificant and nonthreatening.1
At the same time, examinations of
black/white racial relationships in the United States call forth ques-
tions about black invisibility as a tool of resistance. In an editorial
titled “Affirmative Action,” Santa Clara University English Professor
Jeff Zorn, quoting Cornel West, said that
every major institution in American society—churches, universities,
courts, academies of science, governments, economies, television, film,
and others—attempted to exclude black people from the human fam-
ily in the name of white supremacist ideology. This unrelenting assault
on black humanity produced the fundamental condition of black
culture—that of black invisibility and namelessness.2
Due to the pervasiveness of black invisibility, attention must be
given to how this imposed status of nonexistence can be employed
as a strategic device whereby vital information can be disseminated
within communities in which the dominant culture assumes primary
control. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask”3
sizes this feature of adaptability that is often crucial to marginalized
people’s ability to survive. Dunbar proclaimed in the first two lines of
the opening stanza:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,...4
Dunbar’s poem points to a concept that theologian Kelly
Brown Douglas terms white culture. In Sexuality and the Black
102 Ethical Complications of Lynching
Church: A Womanist Perspective, Brown Douglas explains that “white
culture is distinguished by its ability to promote the sanctity of white-
ness by devaluing that which is non-White.”5
Brown Douglas goes
on to say that “this culture asserts the supremacy of whiteness and is
accompanied by social, political, and economic systems that also privi-
Based on Brown Douglas’s working definition, we can
conclude that proponents of white culture dictate the terms on which
they interact with blacks. Architects of this social pathology,7
leaders across various sectors of the private and public domain, deter-
mine the basis for interracial interaction. But to be invisibly present can
contribute to a climate that allows white bankers, educators, lawyers,
physicians, entrepreneurs, and other prominent citizens to openly dis-
cuss tactics of terror.8
Wells observed that “so bold have the lynchers
become, masks are laid aside, the temples of justice and strongholds
of law are invaded in broad daylight and prisoners are taken out and
lynched, while governors of states and officers of law stand by and see
the work well done.”9
As one example of many, consider this public
threat issued in response to Wells’s June 1892 article. She recalled that
telegraphing for news, I received telegrams and letters in return inform-
ing me that the trains were being watched, that I was to be dumped
into the river and beaten, if not killed; it had been learned that I wrote
the editorial and I was to be hanged in front of the court-house and
my face bled if I returned, and I was implored by my friends to remain
away. One prominent insurance agent publicly declares he will make it
his business to shoot me down on sight if I return to Memphis in twenty
years, while a leading white lady has remarked that she was opposed
to the lynching of those three men in Memphis, but she did wish there
was some way by which I could be gotten back and lynched.10
Wells’s ability to defy normative portrayals of being is intricately
connected to her ability to redefine that which constitutes meaning.
As she recounted in her autobiography:
Like many another person who had read of lynching in the South, I
had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching
was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over
the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching; that perhaps the brute
deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life. But
Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Lee Stewart had been lynched
in Memphis, one of the leading cities of the South, in which no lynch-
ing had taken place before, with just as much brutality as other victims
of the mob; and they had committed no crime against white women.11
This required a re-orientation on her part that was necessitated
by historical circumstances. Wells explained how the tortuous and
cruel death of her friends at the hands of persons unknown, although
“the papers told how Tom Moss begged for his life, for the sake of
his wife, his little daughter and his unborn infant,”12
sense of justice. She declared that “this is what opened my eyes to
what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were
acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and
‘keep the nigger down.’”13
This shift in her thinking about lynching
required Wells to think long and hard about Moss’s last utterance to
move West and resettle in territory where African Americans would
not be treated as harshly as they were in Memphis and other southern
locales. As Wells’s analysis of lynching makes clear, re-orientation
can facilitate the manner in which we view justice in a racially violent
world. By explicitly demonstrating that the work of justice is a con-
tinual process, re-orientation required Wells to expend the energy to
raise questions while she simultaneously articulated a response that
reflected an awareness of the multiplicity of views on the issue of
lynching. From this life-altering event, Wells “began an investigation
of every lynching she read about.”14
Wells examined how power dynamics can shape cultural values.
Born to slave parents, Wells demonstrated an ability to appreciate gifts
of power that emerge when we begin to rethink our sense of being in
connection with the various contexts in which we participate. In other
words, knowledge about the relationship between public authority and
lynching contributed to her ability to look beyond tolerated behavior in
order to perceive ethical complications of lynching on/in society. Wells
understood that coercive factors are often elusive and subtle. But she
was also very much aware that power dynamics are also dependent on
the creation of social classifications designed to produce a desired out-
come. In fact, one way this predetermined objective is accomplished is
to exercise terror as a means of control. In his 1944 essay, “The Negro
Issue in America,” Reinhold Niebuhr hypothesized that “if a commu-
nity desires to keep a race in permanent subjection, it can only do so by
consistent Nazi methods. It must destroy the capacity to resist injustice
among those who suffer from it.”15
Thus it is important to recognize that a nonretaliatory response
to lynching fifty-two years prior to Niebuhr’s assessment of the
black-and-white issue in the United States may be best described as
compelled obedience. I coined this phrase to describe behavior that
advocates a clever use of terminology as an essential ingredient to
104 Ethical Complications of Lynching
manufacture a culture of fear. Sometimes the targeted audience,
unable to articulate a rebuttal, will comply with the oppressor’s
demands in order to avoid further retaliation. Of course, it should
be noted that manipulated responses are not necessarily indicative
of a respondent’s felt sense but may instead reflect an awareness that
noncompliance could result in greater injustices.
Far from passive submission, Wells realized that black response to
the March 1892 lynching in Memphis reflected an awareness of their
cultural reality. In “Lynch Law in All Its Phases” she said that “ven-
geance was whispered from ear to ear, but sober reflection brought
the conviction that it would be extreme folly to seek vengeance when
such action meant certain death for men, and horrible slaughter for
women and children, as one of the evening papers took care to remind
us.” Recourse for African Americans, and black Memphians in par-
ticular, required a counterresponse that did not ignore the fact, as
Wells articulated clearly, that “the power of the State, country and
city, the civil authorities and the strong arm of the military power
were all on the side of the mob and of lawlessness.”16
Phillip Dray, concurring with Wells, noted that this reaction to
racialized fear is unfortunately not an isolated response. The ability
of African Americans to comprehend the magnitude of racialized fear
could counter the devastating effects of the mob. For instance, in At
the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America,
Dray said that this socially conditioned response was problematic. He
especially noted that “in small, isolated towns, agreeing after the fact
that a lynching had been good and proper was also a sound survival
strategy—best to allow the lynch mob’s fury to end with its origi-
nal victim than spread to the whole black community, as too often
At any rate, the nonexistence of checks and balances
designed to promote just practices gave way to systems based on false
constructions of race as a means to exert force.
Like Wells, Niebuhr is attentive to dynamics of morality and
power. In some of his selected works,18
attention is given to the rela-
tionship of love, justice, and power. Niebuhr stressed the importance
of differentiating between moral and social behavior of individuals
and groups. And though he emphasized that the possibility exists that
individuals may occasionally be able to give priority to someone else’s
interest, Niebuhr suggested that the probability that this will occur in
a group is highly unlikely.
This line of thought indicates that in groups the possibility always
exists that pertinent information might not be disclosed or that
motives may not be easily detected in order to determine the needs
of others and subsequently the most appropriate strategy to foster a
morally principled response. Or, as Niebuhr contended, what eventu-
ally determines group interaction is the amount of power possessed
by each group. As a matter of fact, it is almost impossible to disagree
with Niebuhr that “the oppressed, whether they be the Indians in
the British Empire, or the Negroes in our own country or the indus-
trial workers in every nation, have a higher moral right to challenge
their oppressors than these have to maintain their rule by force.”19
However, in response to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on the class-
action lawsuit commonly referred to as Brown v. Board of Education
Niebuhr said, “[O]ne may hope that ultimately the Negro people will
have the same advantages that all our children have. But there must
be a measure of sympathy for those who are afraid of the immediate
effects of present educational plans.”20
This concept of gradual adjustment suggests that it is equally hard
to accept unconditionally Niebuhr’s position that minority group
members exercise what I term moderate reason when they determine
what constitutes a just act. I use this descriptor, moderate reason,
to point to what I see as a fallacy in Niebuhr’s analysis that shifts
responsibility from the oppressor to the oppressed. In other words,
members of marginalized communities are asked to allow sufficient
time, as determined by the other, to dismantle inequitable structures.
This subjective factor—how long is long enough—grants time for
the status quo to adapt to proposed changes, and suggests that love
is never sufficient in the quest for justice since power is required to
obtain and maintain some sense of equilibrium as determined by the
At issue is the manner in which gradualism with regard to race in
the United States can be used as a tool to promote continued practices
of injustice when the oppressed are always asked to make allowances
for the actions of those whose points of privilege are being chal-
lenged. Of course, we want to believe that this is an exception and
not the norm. However, in her critique of the response of the United
States to lynching Wells helps us to understand that it is perhaps
no coincidence that “the South spares nobody else’s feelings, and it
seems a queer logic that when it comes to a question of right, involv-
ing lives of citizens and the honor of the government, the South’s
feelings must be respected and spared.”21
Thus, Niebuhr’s sugges-
tion to grant time for the other to adjust to a recommended change
and its associated socio-ethical implications is not a novel concept.
106 Ethical Complications of Lynching
However, Wells would, and rightfully so, push him on this issue of
From Wells’s perspective, oppressed members should not only
expect, they should demand that their oppressors be required to
account for their actions. Her stance on social justice required that
“a public sentiment strong against lawlessness must be aroused.”22
Though brief, this statement suggests that there is a correlation
between individual and communal response to moral problems. Wells
also insisted that the actualization of a just society could not become
a lived reality if responsibility was not shared across multiple points
of community intersections that included, but were not limited to,
race. Wells emphasized that
Every individual can contribute to this awakening. When a sentiment
against lynch law as strong, deep and mighty as that roused against
slavery prevails, I have no fear of the result. It should be already estab-
lished as a fact and not as a theory, that every human being must have a
fair trial for his [sic] life and liberty, no matter what the charge against
him [sic]. When a demand goes up from fearless and persistent reform-
ers from press and pulpit, from industrial and moral associations that
this shall be so from Maine to Texas and from ocean to ocean, a way
will be found to make it so.23
I would be remiss if I did not point out that Niebuhr offered sug-
gestions, which mirror those articulated by Wells in 1892, to address
America’s race problem.24
In particular, Niebuhr suggested that “boy-
cotts against banks which discriminate against Negroes in granting
credit, against stores which refuse to employ Negroes while serving
Negro trade, and against public service corporations which practice
racial discrimination, would undoubtedly be crowned with some mea-
sure of success”25
to dismantle racial apartheid in the United States. He
goes on to say that “non-payment of taxes against states which spend
on the education of Negro children only a fraction of the amount spent
on white children, might be an equally efficacious weapon.”26
although Niebuhr provided a rather thorough analysis of disproportion-
ate power, he neglected to shift primary responsibility for social action
to the dominant group.27
Thus, justice demands that we assess multiple
aspects of an issue. To move in this direction requires intentionality to
foster dialogue that will not only dispel myths but that will also raise
suspicions regarding traditions that reflect societal fragmentations.
Re-orientation, as an act of resistance, requires that we pay atten-
tion to and give voice to the ways in which God reveals God’s self.
This idea, though, should not be accepted as a given. Rather, as dis-
cussed throughout this text, Wells’s response to the 1892 lynching
of Moss, Stewart, and McDowell illustrates the necessity to evaluate
cultural practices that contradict notions of justice. More specifically,
Wells’s writings on lynching make clear that re-orientation is a delib-
erate act of positioning that requires both a self-evaluation of held
assumptions as well as a broader evaluation of behaviors that impede
the actualization of justice.
At the same time, this turning toward something necessitates a
shift in our way of thinking that can result in new questions that may
contradict previously held beliefs. For example, although Wells was
educated by Northern missionaries at Rust College in Holly Springs,
Mississippi, during the early years of emancipation, and during the
same period engaged in family and church bible study, she did not
question the socio-ethical implications of southern horrors and mob
rule until someone she knew was lynched. As I mentioned earlier and
will discuss in greater detail later, Wells assumed that the reasons
given for lynching were valid and did not question the motives of
the lynchers. Based on this pre-March 1892 stance, she did not voice
any concern about collusion between elected officials and mob mem-
bers who were sometimes one and the same. Before she was person-
ally affected by the mob’s actions, Wells did not raise concerns about
moral implications associated with this country’s infatuation with
Evidence suggests, as mentioned earlier, that black journalists
did question lynch allegations and the mob’s subsequent action.
What Wells’s anti-lynching apologetic makes clear is that the act of
re-orientation can result in a rethinking of foundational doctrines. In
the case of lynching, Wells asks us to consider what our actions com-
municate about our faith. In this regard I draw upon the research of
historian of religion Charles H. Long, as well as my own research, to
explore more thoroughly re-orientation as an act of resistance.
Long, recognized for his scholarship and contributions to an inter-
disciplinary approach to the study of religion, asks that we take seri-
ously the meaning of religion in the life of a people whose history
suggests, or rather demands, a re-interpretation. Long’s interpretative
explanation regarding the introduction of religion in the new world
is vital for anyone who wants to understand religion and its resulting
theological ethical implications. He posits that in order to understand
religion, and in particular the history of religion in the United States,
we must return to the world of the Atlantic and ask some pertinent
108 Ethical Complications of Lynching
questions. For, as Long emphasizes, an understanding of religion in
this nation is intricately connected to whether we view the world from
the upper deck or from the bowels of the slave vessel. In other words,
religion emerges from and is shaped by our worldview.
In Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation
of Religion, Long provides a definition of religion to differentiate his
work from that of theologians. Religion, according to Long, is first
and foremost orientation. It is “orientation in the ultimate sense.”28
It is this awareness of being that subsequently enables us to “come
to terms with the fundamental meaning of our place in the world,”29
Long contends. In a sense, then, to engage in the act of re-orientation
is to debunk truth misrepresentations that promote the suppression
of other expressions of reality. Unless we understand this need to
identify with that which is essential to naming concrete contextual
realities we cannot comprehend the significance of Long’s work as it
relates to re-orientation and solidarity with persons often described
as “the least” of God’s children.
At the very least intentionality in crafting questions from the per-
spective of those chained in the bowels of ships christened “John the
Baptist,” “Grace,” “Mercy,” “Hope,” “Jesus,” can serve as a lens by
which we can recognize strategies employed to perpetuate a lie or,
to quote Long, to signify.30
We can use this exercise to view multiple
sides of a shared story and in so doing assess some broader implica-
tions related to an unquestionable endorsement of the dominant cul-
ture’s historical construction of a universal reality as normative and
its associated consequences for slaves who did not stand on the ship’s
deck to image a “brave new world.” This act of re-orientation as an
act of resistance demands that we confront deliberately designed prac-
tices that are rarely more than exploitative systems whose primary
objective is to erect structures to maintain the perceived privileges
of a select few at the expense of people often least equipped to chal-
lenge the validity of these assumptions. In other words, re-orientation
implies, “the past must be viewed as the conditioning circumstance
of the present.”31
For Wells, this required seeing the connections between slavery and
her current context in order to recognize that lynching was a skillfully
devised practice to safeguard the lifestyle of a few at the expense of
many. She recognized that lynching was more than the horrifying rope
and fagot. While the hanging of lifeless bodies from branches was, and
remains, a prominent symbol of America’s insatiable thirst for terror,
people were brutally slaughtered in diverse ways. At any given moment
any technique or a combination, thereof, could be employed by the
mob. Imagine, and I borrow from Wells and other scholars’ descrip-
tions to describe various techniques used by lynchers: “Lynching
victims, nailed inside whiskey barrels, subjected to death by rolling.
Envision others, with hands and legs secured, as objects of target prac-
tice as bullets wrenched through their bodies. Picture some, chased for
sport, when upon capture they were dismembered while their bodies
roasted over a campfire.” Wells arrived at a point where she knew
that mob rule had a tenor of absoluteness. But more importantly, she
understood that re-orientation demanded of her the courage to exam-
ine lynching’s causal effect and to be aware of the associated risk to
herself and to the community on whose behalf she spoke.
Long’s analysis of the creation and implementation of religion in
America suggests that if we are serious about developing a Christian
ethic of resistance, we need, as Wells and others engaged in the work
of justice demonstrate, to look at how individuals have gone and con-
tinue to go to great lengths to safeguard a perceived privileged exis-
tence. In other words, to view justice in a racially violent world we
must be, in some instances, compelled to recognize how re-orientation
influences the manner in which we examine exploitative schemes of
those who stood on the decks of slave ships to imagine prosperous
futures. If we accept this notion as a given, there are some things that
we simply have to come to terms with in order to assess the inter-
connectedness of history. Wells’s graphic depiction of the similarity
between the Antebellum South and the New South exemplify Long’s
hypothesis. As Wells explained,
[H]er (America’s) white citizens are wedded to any method however
revolting, any measure however extreme, for the subjugation of the
young manhood of the race. They have cheated him out of his bal-
lot, deprived him of civil rights or redress therefore in the civil courts,
robbed him of the fruits of his labor, and are still murdering, burning
and lynching him.32
Wells’s observation demonstrates two things. First, it illustrates
measures individuals will employ in order to avoid acknowledging the
humanity of a people whose heritage is informed by chattel slavery.
More than that, it serves as a reminder that a conscious awareness
of issues mandates a response. Hence, a second step in articulating a
Christian ethic of resistance is the intentional creation of space(s) that
promotes a collaborative effort by any who commit to do the hard
110 Ethical Complications of Lynching
work of self-reflection that is necessary if we are to hear opposing
views that contradict prevailing interpretations.
Following this line of thinking, to view justice in a racially violent
world requires that we recognize that signification, “a very clever lan-
names and dictates reality from a dominant perspective
as a means to maintain an appearance of control. One way to under-
stand how this works, especially as it relates to lynching, is to look at
the excuses that were offered to justify lawlessness in the United States.
Frederick Douglass, Wells, and Cutler addressed three alleged reasons
that masked and disguised motives that fueled the torturous mutila-
tion of thousands of individuals.34
Wells recognized that the linguistic
brokers’ “excuses have adapted themselves to the emergency, and are
aptly outlined by that greatest of all Negroes, Frederick Douglass, in
an article of recent date, in which he shows that there have been three
distinct eras of Southern barbarism, to account for which three dis-
tinct excuses have been made.”35
In summary, lynching was justified
on the following grounds:
The first excuse given to the civilized world for the murder of●
unoffending Negroes was the necessity of the white man to repress and
stamp out alleged “race riots.”
The second excuse, the fear of Negro domination, had its birth during●
the turbulent times of reconstruction.
The third excuse was that Negroes had to be killed to avenge their●
assaults upon women.36
In a speech delivered at the Metropolitan A.ME Church in
Washington, D C on January 9, 1894, Douglass told his audience that
insurrection, black supremacy, and sexual assault, the “three distinct
periods of persecution of negroes in the South came along precisely
in the order in which they were most needed.”37
What resulted was
a shrewd use of language to create a climate of fear that allowed its
principal architects “to justify their own barbarism”38
with little con-
cern about police or other legal intervention. Thus, it is imperative
that a Christian ethic of resistance identify connections between sig-
nification and discourse analysis,39
or the study of text in context,
which is necessary to explore effectively the relationship between mis-
representations of justice and verbal misdirection(s).
A primary objective of discourse analysis in the development of
a Christian ethic of resistance to combat systemic violence that is
informed by the history of lynching in the United States is to make
explicit the ways in which majority group members use textual talk
about minorities to construct assumptions about minorities that are
subsequently promoted as factual. Through an examination of the
role of exchanges and surpluses, a Christian ethic of resistance can
illustrate the ramifications associated with the role of discourse40
it relates to re-orientation and the manner in which we view justice
in a racially violent world. In one sense, exchanges, through a variety
of means, are the result of the process of substituting one thing for
another. Quite often this is accomplished through the construction
of a dual standard of value assignment in order to create a façade that
absolves certain individuals of responsibility. Wells exposed a public
sentiment about “lynch law in all its phases” indicating that “the
general government is willingly powerless to send troops to protect
the lives of its black citizens, but the state governments are free to use
state troops to shoot them down like cattle, when in desperation the
black men attempt to defend themselves, and then tell the world that
it was necessary to put down a ‘race war.’”41
modes of speaking regarding the creation of distinct cultural indi-
cators contribute to the crafting of a society that perceives itself as
How we view justice in a racially violent world can be a catalyst
to facilitate the necessary work to promote interpretations from the
underside in order to evaluate creative uses of surpluses. For instance,
the utilization of surpluses, the remains after a stated need is satisfied,
can result in a response that indicates that those who live with the con-
sequences of historical and contemporary manifestations of lynching
can ingeniously imagine and actualize an existence that is not char-
acterized by horror. Perhaps the profoundest result of re-orientation
as an act of resistance in a racially violent world is reflected in Wells’s
1892 assessment of boycott as a necessary effort to combat lynching.
In essence, as stated previously, Wells realized that “the appeal to
the white man’s [sic] pocket has ever been more effectual than all the
appeals ever made to his conscience.” Wells stressed that “nothing,
absolutely nothing, is to be gained by a further sacrifice of manhood
[sic] and self-respect.” Instead, Wells emphasized that “by the right
exercise of his [sic] power as the industrial factor of the South, the
Afro-American can demand and secure his [sic] rights, the punish-
ment of lynchers, and a fair trial for accused rapists.”42
While the actualization of Wells’s advice regarding the impact of
economic solidarity as a means to address barbaric practices has not
been realized by all, what her correlation suggests is that a change
112 Ethical Complications of Lynching
of perspective in how we view justice in a racially violent world is
informed by an act of re-orientation that requires, as sociologist John
H. Stanfield II writes in the Introduction to Race and Ethnicity in
Research Methods, that we “think critically in epistemological and
theoretical veins about methodologies.”43
For as long as the dominant
culture, especially those granted powerbroker status, can obscure
the mode of verbal communication without being held accountable
for their actions, they can, in effect, minimize the importance of a
Christian ethic of resistance to address legally sanctioned forms of
terror in America.
Re-Evaluation: Demythologizing Hegemonic
Ida B. Wells encouraged an oppressed people to execute a collective
strategy to communicate a message to their tormentors. In response
to the March 1892 lynching of three black Memphis entrepreneurs,
Wells explained that
[a]lthough the race was wild over the outrage, the mockery of law and
justice which disarmed men and locked them up in jails where they
could be easily and safely reached by the mob—the Afro-American
ministers, newspapers and leaders counseled obedience to the law
which did not protect them. Their counsel was heeded and not a hand
was lifted to resent the outrage; following the advice of the Free Speech,
people left the city in great numbers.1
Her endorsement of this countermeasure should not be construed
as a racist response. Instead, we should consider how a refusal to
support systems that directly or indirectly endorse vigilante violence
inspired Wells to exercise moral courage to write and speak her mind.
She understood that to respond to violence with violence would only
exacerbate an already horrendous situation. The ability to effect
change, then, depended on a re-evaluation of existing rules of social
engagement. This was realized through a group effort that captured
the attention of members of the ruling majority. As Wells made clear,
“the men who make these charges encourage or lead the mobs which
do the lynching.” The architects of mob rule and lynch law, accord-
ing to Wells, “belong to the race which holds Negro life cheap, which
owns the telegraph wires, newspapers, and all other communication
with the outside world.” In other words, the masterminds behind
114 Ethical Complications of Lynching
lynching, as Wells points out, “write the reports which justify lynch-
ing by painting the Negro as black as possible and those reports are
accepted by the press associations and the world without question or
It can be argued that Wells’s proposal was a life-saving technique.
She recognized that any attempt to bargain with the powerbrokers
would be futile. To continue to support the oppressor was not an
option. Hence, her critique of whiteness refuted assumed compliance
to practices that were fueled by hatred. Far from passive submission,
Wells said, “it becomes a painful duty of the Negro to reproduce a
record which shows that a large portion of the American people avow
anarchy, condone murder and defy the contempt of civilization.”3
Eventually, migration, whether realized through a physical relocation
or by a change in perspective, impacted Memphis in its refusal to con-
demn the lynching of Moss, McDowell, and Stewart but not without
personal consequences to Wells. According to Wells,
Black men [sic] left the city by thousands, bringing about great stagna-
tion in every branch of business. Those who remained so injured the
business of the street car company by staying off the cars, that the
superintendent, manager and treasurer called personally on the editor
of the Free Speech, [and] asked them to urge our people to give them
their patronage again. Other business men became alarmed over the
situation and the Free Speech was run away that the colored people
might be more easily controlled.4
While the recommendation to migrate was certainly warranted,
Wells’s suggestion does not address how to exist in a hostile environ-
ment when relocation is not an option. In order to move while remain-
ing in place it stands to reason that an ontological shift can facilitate a
reaction to a specific situation.5
In other words, the manner in which
self is understood in relationship to a broader context can result in
an ability to reassess moral problems and ethical dilemmas in order
to extract from and subsequently reassign value to sources typically
attributed to a nonmajority population sector. As a component of the
remedy that she proposed to prevent lynching, Wells asked people in
1895, especially African Americans and those with whom they were
think and act on independent lines in this behalf, remembering that
after all, it is the white man’s [sic] civilization and the white man’s [sic]
government which are on trial. This crusade will determine whether
that civilization can maintain itself, or whether anarchy shall prevail.
Whether this Nation shall write itself down a success at self govern-
ment, or in deepest humiliation admit its failure complete; whether
the precepts and theories of Christianity are professed and practiced
by American white people as Golden Rules of thought and action, or
adopted as a system of morals to be preached to, heathen until they
attain to the intelligence which needs the system of Lynch Law.6
For Wells, it was evident that the language endorsed by the mob
and its supporters did not adequately speak to the plight of blacks
in America. Thus, in light of her shared story with a people whose
ancestors’ sense of personhood was often diametrically opposed to
tenets endorsed by most white citizens, Wells challenges us to consider
how an understanding of faith and reason might inform the problem
of lynching and racism.
However, when events from the past reflect history as terror, the
ability to adjust to new environments is often a prerequisite to a socio-
ethical critique that challenges suppositions about human behavior.
For if history is a record of major events based on explanations that
seek to justify behavior, this act of migration or transition can con-
tribute to the maintenance of a sense of authenticity that is essential if
we are to determine the manner in which we will name our reality. It
is then imperative that questions regarding this country’s heritage be
framed in a manner that evokes and invokes the emergence of another
version of the facts about what occurred during and subsequent to the
trans-Atlantic crossing as individuals journeyed and continue to move
toward that which often denotes a new beginning.
Wells explicitly demonstrated that issues of equality articulated in
the founding documents of the United States were dependent upon sub-
jective interpretation and application. A challenge that emerges from
her analysis of lynching demands that we think long and hard about
implications associated with an unquestioned acceptance of accusa-
tions that adversely impact how we depict a specific group to a broader
audience. Even if we are unable to believe that every version of history
is, to some extent, invariably flawed, Wells asks that we take a per-
sonal inventory in order to determine the ways in which we passively
or actively condone practices that advance a preferred way of life for
a specific group without considering the devastating residual effects
on those deemed other and therefore insignificant. Furthermore, she
says it is essential that “individuals, organizations, press and pulpit
should unite in vigorous denunciation of all forms of lawlessness and
earnest, constant demand for the rigid enforcement of the law of the
land. Nay, more than this, there must spring up in all sections of
116 Ethical Complications of Lynching
the country vigilant, aggressive defenders of the Constitution of our
To appropriate Wells’s 1892 suggestion as a viable
source to address contemporary forms of violently destructive acts
we must address the modern world in all of its complexity. What this
implies is that we must reclaim history that has been relegated to the
margins in a manner similar to that experienced by those with whom
Wells was racially and ethnically aligned. Furthermore to engage and
encourage others to read texts from the underside, that is, from the
perspective of the marginalized in society, can be viewed as an act of
If we take seriously Wells’s mandate to investigate moral
problems, her analysis of lynching necessitates that we think long and
hard about the implications of her claim as it relates to a Christian
understanding of love, neighbor, community, and church.
Notwithstanding the historical and contemporary negativity that
must be associated with lynching, to agree with Wells is to acknowl-
edge that central to understanding the importance of a Christian ethic
of resistance, that emerges from a marginalized community, is the
significance of the work and life of Jesus the Christ to a church that
lives in hope-filled expectation of the salvific promise for all humans
in every culture. As a result, a Christian ethic of resistance will chal-
lenge many assumptions of what are widely accepted as definitive
theological positions. That is, a Christian ethic of resistance demands
we critically examine presuppositions of its foundational doctrines—
Christology, ecclesiology, eschatology, soteriology, anthropology—if
we are to hear and to embrace truth in the diverse ways in which it is
expressed and, in so doing, actively engage in the work of justice. At
the heart of Wells’s apologetic is an understanding of a God who acts
on behalf of the least and often visibly invisible persons in society.
In her 1909 essay, “Mob Murder in a Christian Nation,” of pri-
mary concern for Wells is how faith informs the condoning of lynch-
ing. Sociologist and civil rights activist Arthur F. Raper noted as
follows in his analysis of more than twenty lynchings that occurred
Generally speaking, preachers and church officers, like other citizens,
were compromised into letting things take their course. The most com-
mon view expressed by ministers was that the lynching, though unfor-
tunate, was inevitable. The ministers, and especially the Southern
Methodists and Southern Baptists, usually felt that they would be
faced with a serious division among their members should they actively
support indictment and conviction of the lynchers.9
Michael Pfeifer adds additional insight into the question of lynch-
ing and Christianity. His investigation found that “occasionally,
Christian churchmen openly endorsed mob murder.”10
He offers, as an
example, an account in which a Wilmington, Delaware, Presbyterian
pastor “incited the June 1903 lynching by several thousand of George
White, an African American who had allegedly raped and murdered a
young white woman, Helen Bishop.”11
Pfeifer also provides examples
of pastors who “determinedly tried to dissuade their young working-
class male parishioners from joining a lynch mob of several thousand
that would lynch three African American circus employees on a spuri-
ous accusation of rape.”12
For Wells, lynching was an anathema that resulted in many
Christians subverting concepts of love and justice. As a result, she con-
tended that lynching was not a southern problem. Instead, she insisted
that lynching “is now national—a blight upon our nation, mocking
our laws and disgracing our Christianity.”13
And, as Raper pointed
out, “the most fundamental way in which the church is related to mob
violence is that, not infrequently, the local church leaves unchallenged
the general assumption that the Negro is innately inferior and of little
importance. Upon this assumption ultimately rests the justification
To which Wells replied, “‘With malice toward none
but with charity for all,’ let us undertake the work of making the
‘law of the land’ effective and supreme upon every foot of American
soil—a shield to the innocent; and to the guilty, punishment swift and
Wells also provided a convincing illustration to support the dis-
torted relationship between lynching and a Christian understanding
of righteousness. She correctly noted that in a context where
[h]umanity abhors the assailant of womanhood, this charge upon the
Negro at once placed him beyond the pale of human sympathy. With
such unanimity, earnestness and apparent candor was this charge made
and reiterated that the world has accepted the story that the Negro is
a monster which the Southern white man [sic] has painted him. And
today, the Christian world feels, that while lynching is a crime, and
lawlessness and anarchy the certain precursors of a nation’s fall, it can
not by word or deed, extend sympathy or help to a race of outlaws,
who might mistake their plea for justice and deem it an excuse for their
Due to the sentiment expressed in the aforementioned statements, a
Christian ethic of resistance not only demands that we reexamine the
118 Ethical Complications of Lynching
interlocking cycle of oppression based on race but re-evaluation also
specifically calls us to demythologize hegemonic structures designed
to counter factors that should influence an understanding of commu-
nity that is called to model the one who is the way and the truth.
Indeed, following this line of thinking, to participate in the work
of justice requires that we become proficient in evaluating the often-
hidden motives of the signifier. In particular, skills must be acquired
so that new meaning ascribed to existing symbols reflects a Christian
ethic of resistance designed to address and counter the effects associ-
ated with the cruel manipulation of words. This second requirement,
re-evaluation and the demythologization of hegemonic structures, is
important for a number of reasons. In one sense, demythologizing
hegemonic structures, as an act of resistance, involves recovering sto-
ries about this nation’s infatuation with terror. Another important
aspect of demythologizing hegemonic structures is a requirement to
identify survival strategies that are crucial if we are to understand how
to navigate a world that is still based on fragmentary constructs. A
Christian ethic of resistance also asks that we broaden our awareness
regarding the connection between language control and semiotics or
signs and symbols. In many respects, re-evaluation places us in a posi-
tion so that we can better understand how the tendency to speak from
a universal impersonal perspective rather than from a particular per-
sonal viewpoint can hinder our ability to demythologize hegemonic
structures designed to subvert justice.
Re-Interpretation: Defining Hope from a
Ida B. Wells crusaded for justice in a world that was shaped during a
period characterized as a search for self-actualization that was con-
tingent on the dehumanization of others. Her maturation as a person
committed to justice was shaped by a period of multiple transitions
for people of African descent.1
For recently emancipated persons,
freedom, for many, was complicated by illiteracy and a dependency
on former “owners” for employment and bare essentials, such as food
and shelter, needed for survival.
Reconstruction offered a measure of hope. This short-lived ini-
tiative that enabled black men to vote, while women of all races
remained disenfranchised, quickly led to the rise of Jim Crow. In this
climate of legalized racial segregation and discrimination, freedom
for African Americans during the years 1892–1910 was accompanied
by the shadow of lynch law, which functioned as a constant reminder
that black citizens’ decisions to own property, to vote, to challenge
formal and informal customs could place them, their family, and their
community at risk. In 1893, Wells wrote that lynch law “continues in
force to-day in some of the oldest states of the Union, where courts
of justice have long been established, whose laws are executed by
white Americans. It flourishes most largely in the states which foster
the convict lease system, and is brought to bear mainly, against the
Seventeen years later, Wells sadly pointed out in her 1910 essay
“How Enfranchisement Stops Lynching” that “the Negro’s only
weapon of defense has been taken from him by legal enactment in
all of the old confederacy—and the United States Government, a
120 Ethical Complications of Lynching
consenting Saul stands by holding the clothes of those who stone and
burn him to death literally and politically.”3
This national ethos is
the background from which Wells embarked upon a critical engage-
ment with the controversial issue of lynching. She raised questions
about an inability, or refusal, on the part of those who could work to
minimize subjective applications of due process, to understand that
justice should not be determined on the basis of race, gender, or class.
A quote that Wells credits to the August 5, 1893 issue of the Inter-
reinforces her position on judicial equity. Although Wells did
not identify the editor, she concurred with the writer that
the real need is for a public sentiment in favor of enforcing the law
and giving every man [sic], white and black, a fair hearing before the
lawful tribunals....But the Negro has as good a right to a fair trial as
the white man [sic], and the South will not be free from these horrible
crimes of mob law so long as the better class of citizens try to find
excuse for recognizing Judge Lynch.5
Nonetheless and not at all surprising, Wells’s ability to substanti-
ate her claim with information collected and disseminated by leading
Euro-American newspapers met with resistance. In a letter to Frederick
Douglass dated December 20, 1893, Wells expressed concern about a
personal threat that appeared in the black-owned American Citizen6
the previous week. The author of the editorial alleged that “we never
fight women and children, but really, Brother Bird, you had better
put a muzzle on that animal from Memphis. We are onto her dirty
sneaking tricks. If we get after her, we will make her wish her mother
had changed her mind ten months before she was born. We have
been to New York. Are we understood?”7
In direct opposition to the
prevailing perception, Wells’s publications and speeches pointed to
a tendency on the part of the majority to discredit minority perspec-
tives that called into question endorsements of horrific displays of
inhumanity. Instead of drawing commonly held conclusions, Wells
discovered that perception is a process of comprehension that emerges
from a critical engagement on controversial issues. This awareness led
her to acknowledge that the majority’s perspective was in many cases,
as illustrated earlier, intentionally distorted.
More to the point, Wells articulated a position that was grounded
in the particularity of the fascination of the United States with lynch-
ing. Her anti-lynching campaign provided an opportunity for some
to discern the ways in which a failure to evaluate existing standards
contradicted notions of justice. Not only did she remove the mask of
deception associated with excuses used to justify extralegal killings,
her interpretation of lynching functioned as a vehicle to inform and to
educate others about a reality that was not consistent with depictions
of civilized behavior. In order to come to terms then with the ulti-
mate sense of her place in the world, Wells had to position herself to
actively engage in a countercultural transformation. An honest assess-
ment about the importance of her social location was intricately con-
nected to Wells’s ability to determine how to effect change even when
imposed conditions indicated otherwise. Indeed, if we follow this line
of thinking, there is little doubt that this conceptual understanding
contributed to her pragmatic approach to the lynch abomination.
Wells analyzed implications of a broader story and her investigation
of this country’s red record resulted in a different version of causes,
techniques, and effects associated with lynching. One way that she
accomplished this was to explore the limits to which some would go
in order to manufacture a culture that automatically excluded some,
most notably former slaves and their offspring, from that which con-
stituted the common good. Wells realized, for example, the press’
enormous influence to shape public opinion. She commented that
“those who commit the murders write the reports, and hence these
lasting blots upon the honor of a nation cause but a faint ripple on
the outside world. They arouse no great indignation and call forth
no adequate demand for justice. The victims were black, and the
reports are so written as to make it appear that the helpless creatures
deserved the fate which overtook them.”8
These statements imply that
lynching was an accepted practice. Thus, through a systematic decon-
struction of prevailing myths, narratives became a tool that Wells
used to reconstruct another representation of reality. In this way, she
understood how language could be used to provide multiple views of
contextual encounters. Unequivocally Wells stated that her research
indicated that “the press contains unreliable and doctored reports of
lynchings, and one of the most necessary things for the race to do is
to get these facts before the public.”9
In addition, she emphasized that
“the people must know before they can act, and there is no educator
to compare with the press.”10
Accordingly, Wells reminds us that to write is to name reality. In
a conversation with a young woman about her involvement in the
anti-lynching campaign, Wells realized that sources about her life, as
well as many other African-American shapers of history, were nonex-
Although she had authored several publications—beginning
122 Ethical Complications of Lynching
with Southern Horrors in 1892—to address lynching, Wells decided
in 1928, according to Alfreda Duster’s Introduction to Crusade for
Justice, to pen her life story.12
Tremendous strides have been made to increase the number of works
published by and about African Americans. And yet, more than three-
quarters of a century since Wells addressed a specific question about
historical accessibility, diversity in source documents continues to be
problematic in many sectors of American life. Take, for example, a
myth held by one too many persons descended from slaves that black
people do not publish. One way that members of the academic com-
munity can address this misrepresentation is to become more inten-
tional to include the works of African-American scholars as required
resources. This approach may signal an institutional awareness that
mis-education is a contemporary problem complicated by value sys-
tems based on the intricacies of what constitutes knowledge.
Furthermore, Wells’s anti-lynching publications illustrate that to
name reality is to expose a lie. She was a master rhetorician. With
her vivid use of language, Wells painted a verbal picture that con-
tinues to encourage readers to consider the ways in which we under-
stand civilization. Wells asked “the thinking public”13
the inhumanity associated with southern horrors and mob rule. She
couched her appeal with references to freedom and education that
are cornerstones to an ability to actualize the tenets upon which the
United States was founded. In essence, Wells asked that intelligent
people reconsider what is required to create a society that strives to
honor the fact that all people are “created equal and endowed by
their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” With the stroke of her
pen or typewriter keys, Wells signaled that if freedom and education
are more brutalizing than slavery then life, liberty, and the pursuit of
property is an illusion for African Americans and for all who consider
This, in turn, highlights the fact that Wells’s actions and her cri-
tique of ethical complications of lynching indicate that to expose a
lie is to risk alienation. Although hatred can result in the destruc-
tion of buildings, rarely can deeply entrenched contempt completely
obliterate that which it abhors. Although Wells received word, while
on vacation in New York, not to return to Memphis following the
publication of her June 1892 editorial in which she questioned the
reasonableness of race-based lynch rape allegations, her voice was
not silenced. Wells continued to write about the atrocity of lynch-
ing. Her exposure was broadened. Venues in which to express her
views expanded beyond the African-American press. The point here
is that even though Wells was alienated or separated from all that was
familiar she used her imposed exile as an opportunity to provide yet
another example of southern horrors and the urgency to further her
Almost thirty years elapsed before Wells returned to Memphis. She
explained that “born and reared in the South, I had never expected to
Yet, forced from her geographical region of birth,
Wells demonstrated that legally sanctioned cowardly acts can serve to
remind us that when we are separated from that with which we are
most acquainted we can and perhaps must learn how to depend upon
a power that is greater than we are. In the introductory paragraph of
an 1893 essay, Wells stated that “I am before the American people
today through no inclination of my own, but because of a deep-seated
conviction that the country at large does not know the extent to which
lynch law prevails in parts of the Republic, nor the conditions which
force into exile those who speak the truth.”15
While Wells does not make a direct reference to the correlation
between faith and social justice, she was attending a general confer-
ence of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME)16
friend Thomas Moss and his two business partners were lynched on
March 16, 1892 in Memphis. And as noted in chapter six, Wells was
influenced by social justice initiatives that characterized the work of
AME Bishop Reverdy Ransom. It is perhaps no coincidence that her
reaction to gross misrepresentations of justice suggests that to depend
on that which might be beyond our comprehension is to be receptive to
new understandings of truth. She confessed that prior to the lynching
of a personal acquaintance she “was one among those who believed
the conditions of the masses gave large excuse for the humiliations
and proscriptions under which we labored; that when wealth, educa-
tion and character became more general among us,—the cause being
removed—the effect would cease, and justice be accorded alike.”17
In response to a personal threat, Wells expressed how fresh insights
about a specific moral issue can influence an understanding of that
which is promoted as truth. She said,
I have been censured for writing that editorial, but when I think of
the five men who were lynched that week for assault on white women
and that not a week passes but some poor soul is violently ushered
into eternity on this trumped-up charge, knowing the many things I
do, and part of which I tried to tell in the New York Age of June 25,
124 Ethical Complications of Lynching
(and in the pamphlets I have with me) seeing that the whole race in the
South was injured in the estimation of the world because of these false
reports, I could no longer hold my peace, and I feel, yes, I am sure, that
if it had to be done over again (provided no one else was the loser save
myself) I would do and say the very same again.18
Wells embodied these words. She took advantage of multiple oppor-
tunities to give oral and written descriptions of human barbarity and
in so doing gave voice to a distinct particularity.
Consequently it stands to reason that when minority voices partici-
pate in theological ethical discourse, it is imperative that we rethink the
ways in which we use language to speak about others. To substantiate
her position to abolish lynch law Wells referred in a most appropriate
manner to the humanitarian response of the United States to human
rights violations against “Russian Jews and Armenian Christians, the
laboring poor of Europe, the Siberian exiles and the native women of
Yet, in the same paragraph she made derogatory references
to Native Americans in the development of her anti-lynching apolo-
getic. Wells went on to state, “[I]f it were known that the cannibals
or the savage Indians had burned three human beings alive in the
past two years, the whole of Christendom would be roused, to devise
ways and means to put a stop to it.”20
A word of caution—it is impor-
tant to remember that Wells’s terminology is reflective of the era in
which she wrote. However, attention must be given to the ambigu-
ity associated with vocabulary employed by an oppressed group who
in turn subjugate another minority population sector without draw-
ing parallels and, in so doing, could perpetuate a cycle of imposed
Since there are multiple views on what constitutes justice, attention
can be given to how to analyze correlations between historical and
contemporary manifestations of lynching through critical conversa-
tions with seminal thinkers whose concepts continue to influence sig-
nificantly ethical discourse. For example, I find the work of Charles
H. Long to be of immense value to assess what constitutes the com-
mon good. In particular, Long’s ability to ferret out the intricacies of
various dynamics at play during the origin of religion in the United
States points to the detailed attention required to analyze moral prob-
lems and Christian responses. A second concern related to represen-
tations of justice is how to present statistical information and data
interpretation in a manner that will benefit the community(s) most
impacted by policies whose implications are not broadly publicized
but that can have catastrophic results. I raise this as a point for several
First, Tuskegee Institute, a major archival site for lynch statistics,
discontinued updating its records in approximately 1968. Second, the
more general category of hate crimes, under which lynchings are clas-
sified, does not fully convey the historical underpinnings of a vio-
lently destructive act committed without fear of judicial recourse.
This ignorance or insensitivity to the viciousness against which Wells
crusaded is reflected in responses that suggest that the hanging of
nooses from a tree on a public high school campus in LaSalle Parish, a
district in Northeast Louisiana, that overwhelmingly endorsed David
a former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’s
bid for president, was a practical joke.
In light of a tendency by some to suggest that America is becoming
a postracial society, it is important to stress that, to view justice in a
racially violent world, to demythologize hegemonic structures, and
to define hope from a minority perspective is not simply a theoretical
exercise. It demands the hard work of re-orientation, re-evaluation,
and re-interpretation that requires a commitment to identify prag-
matic solutions to concrete ethical dilemmas. What this suggests is
that it is imperative that a Christian ethic of resistance be an inte-
gral curricular component that actively seeks to fill in current gaps in
knowledge concerning African-American contributions to religious
studies. In this regard, Wells’s recommendations to boycott, migrate,
and write, when reformulated as re-orientation, re-evaluation, and
re-interpretation, function as constructive resources for a Christian
ethic of resistance to systemic violence in America in the twenty-first
Just Act: A Mandate to Talk about
We recover stories from our past in order to identify survival strategies that are cru-
cial to developing insight into how to navigate systems sustained on the interlocking
cycle of race, gender, class, and other fragmentary constructs.
—Angela D. Sims
Some who read this publication might assert, and correctly so, that
a Christian ethic of resistance is not contingent on an evaluation
that considers the connection between historical representations of
lynching and twenty-first-century injustices in the United States. I
am convinced though, especially given recent events in which nooses
were hung in public places, such as the door of an African-American
faculty member at Columbia University in New York City in October
2007, that a study of lynching can function as a platform or a basis
to ferret out ethical issues that are inherent in a system built on and
sustained by tyranny in order to avoid a dismantling of the master’s
house. To borrow Audre Lorde’s often-quoted concept1
is to remem-
ber that the work of resistance necessitates a change in perspective.
To become acquainted with lynching—its meanings, its justifications,
its techniques, its culture—is to gain a broader understanding of this
country’s past and present and in so doing to become intentional in
eradicating behaviors that threaten to permeate the future.
In many respects, I write from a pain-filled place that is informed
by a re-orientation in a race-gender-class conscious society. I write as
an African-American female with multiple labels—some self-applied
and others culturally or otherwise imposed. I speak from a place that
128 Ethical Complications of Lynching
has been turned upside down by inequities in systems that are any-
thing but just. I give voice from a space of re-discovery of personhood
that emerges from a stark reality that in twenty-first-century America
black men, irrespective of degrees, professional standing, community
involvement, or financial position, are still “boys” in these United
States. As a daughter, niece, cousin, wife, mother, sister of many mul-
tihued brothers, I recognize that to re-tell the reality of historical and
contemporary manifestations of lynching is an act of justice. In this
regard, a Christian ethic of resistance addresses theological ethical
implications of legally sanctioned acts of terror in order to discern the
After spending more than six years with Ida B. Wells, lynching,
for me, is more than a southern experience. This deliberate act to kill
people without fear of retribution or accountability to legal authori-
ties reflected an accepted national practice. Although “lynchings are
today, the magnitude of this sadistic act is
overwhelming and lynching’s historical and contemporary implica-
tions are far-reaching. Wells, like theologian Kelly Brown Douglas,
realized that “with the support of sexual discourse, lynching became
an effective way to prevent Black people from gaining power politi-
cally, economically, or socially.”3
Wells’s social justice advocacy was far-reaching. Her ability to
maneuver in international circles is admirable. But her capacity to
interpret motives greatly enhanced her ability to communicate effec-
tively her position on lynching as well as her views on franchise
and racial discrimination on public carriers and in employment.4
Wells was instrumental in launching the women’s club movement in
America and was a founding member of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). But her directness
and outspokenness often contributed to moments of ostracism and
Along with her numerous accomplishments a distinctive character-
istic of Wells was her willingness to challenge dominant perspectives,
irrespective of race or gender. From her we gain an appreciation for
an unrelenting determination that is often a prerequisite to explore
the intricacies of practices that contribute to the perpetuation of
legally sanctioned forms of terror. The ability to offer an alternative
viewpoint requires a commitment to assess a situation accurately, to
be cognizant of our biases and lesser strengths, to be willing to accept
constructive criticism, to make the necessary personal sacrifices, to
document our findings, and to articulate our position. In addition,
Just Act 129
Wells’s evaluation of the causes of lynching in the United States points
to several major themes that continue to warrant further investigation.
In particular, her research suggests that there is a direct correlation
between murders committed by mobs and the economics of racism,
the myth of womanhood, and the power of collective strength.
In 1892 vigilante justice was primarily an unchecked aspect of
American civilization. There are those who will disagree with this
claim and insist that mob rule was primarily an indicator of south-
ern culture. I contend, however, that silence from other geographi-
cal sectors can be construed as a form of compliance or at least an
unquestioned acceptance of lynching. The rope and fagot, coupled
with bulleted dismembering, were visible displays of lynching. This
very public dehumanizing event often attracted mass crowds.6
spectators stood on the sidelines with many cheering as they waited
for an opportunity to collect souvenirs, in the form of human body
parts, and to pose for the photographer.
During the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries, the coer-
cive nature of this practice created an ethos of fear that transcended
the southern states’ borders. When he endorsed her description of
lynching and its consequences, Frederick Douglass suggested two
other audiences that would benefit from critically engaging Wells’s
treatise on lynching—the American church and clergy.7
fication of these specific groups suggests that there are ambiguities
operative that allow southern horrors and mob rule to coexist with
Christianity without a loud outcry against this destructive practice.
Reflecting on the movie production of her Pulitzer Prize–winning
novel The Color Purple Alice Walker asserts, in The Same River Twice:
Honoring the Difficult, that “nobody talks about the lynched.”8
While she is referring to the biological father of the novel’s protago-
nist, Walker’s statement suggests that there is a tendency to advance
a conspiracy of silence that ignores the pain associated with trauma.
Wells concurred with Walker and offered the following reason for this
inability to bring discussions about lynching into the public sphere.
According to Wells,
[i]t is the easiest way to get along in the South to ignore the question
altogether; our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of
white Christians from burning in hell-fire to save the lives of black
ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians. The
feelings of the people who commit these acts must not be hurt by pro-
testing against this sort of thing, and so the bodies of the victims of
130 Ethical Complications of Lynching
mob hate must be sacrificed, and the country disgraced because of that
fear to speak out.9
For Wells, the American church and clergy’s silence on the lynch
abominations signaled validation of the behavior of those involved
in the actual act of terror. For her, another paradigm was required to
address mandates to ensure lawmakers and law enforcers recognize
that convention or conformity to dehumanizing cultural dictates is
not representative of the common good. When legal and civil authori-
ties conspire with vigilantes and one too many Christians participate
in lynching, vigilante justice becomes a formula to market oppressive
behavior as normative. When this occurs, domestic forms of orches-
trated terror become standard practices.
When confronted with the effects of the subjective aspect of due
process in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries, Wells
allowed a personal experience of racially motivated hatred to galva-
nize her to critique practices in the “land of the free and the home of
the brave” in public venues. As she explained in Southern Horrors
“my business has been destroyed and I am an exile from home because
of that editorial,10
the issue has been forced, and as a writer of it I feel
that the race and the public generally should have a statement of the
facts as they exist.”11
Her ability to interpret motives, coupled with
her sense of self, contributed to Wells’s ability to communicate effec-
tively a viewpoint on lynching that raised concerns about this coun-
try’s obsession with horrific displays of cruelty.
Prior to March 1892, Wells acknowledged that she did not ques-
tion the justifications attributed to lynching. In other words, she had
no reason to doubt the validity of the claims offered and assumed that
the punishment meted reflected the victim’s guilt. Yet, the murder of
three African-American businessmen in Memphis, including Thomas
Moss, the father of her goddaughter, prompted her to reconsider her
stance on lynching. In other words, when the universal did not com-
port with the particular, Wells had to re-evaluate how to respond
when the impersonal became personal.
The death of individuals whose only crime was protecting their
property ignited within Wells a passion to search for truth with the
hope that her efforts would subsequently result in a more just society.
Her consciousness level had been raised. No longer could she accept
the opinion of the status quo regarding actions that used fear as a
weapon to regulate behavior in order to sustain a disguised form of
slavery predicated on an interlocking system of oppression. She worked
Just Act 131
to perfect her data-gathering and analytical skills in order to present
“a red record,” that is, a graphically detailed account of lynching, in
order to appeal not only to American citizens but to the international
community, especially human rights advocates in Scotland, Wales,
and England, for intervention.
Wells’s sociocultural critique was instrumental in highlighting
America’s proclivity to use fear as a weapon to achieve a desired out-
come and its tendency to promote its myth of an innocent nation while
ignoring the bloodletting upon which it was sustained. Consequently,
Wells’s position on justice is shaped by and reflective of the particu-
larity of a contemporary location that is informed by this country’s
historical reality. A major aspect of her cultural assessment is that
she challenged the world’s view of life in nineteenth-century America.
When we situate her work within the broader context of this liberal
era, we gain an appreciation for the manner in which she used lan-
guage to challenge the sensitivity of people and at the same time to
heighten their awareness on issues of hatred, inequality, and sub-
ordination. More than a century since she began her anti-lynching
campaign, her work demands that we take seriously the account and
subsequent recommendation that this woman, who self-identified as
a journalist, advanced.
Wells’s ability to read the social landscape of the “land of the free
and the home of the brave” during the period 1892–1910 suggests that
responses to social issues are intricately connected to the meanings
ascribed to symbols. She had no choice but to work and her work was
to speak truth to any who would read or hear her message regarding
illegal and heinous practices of mob rule and lynch law. The public
stance that she took regarding a national issue illustrates that com-
mitment to a cause is frequently accompanied by personal risk.
As I discuss throughout this text, Wells’s work on lynching is valu-
able for a number of reasons. First, she offered a solution to combat
lynching. That is, she realized that victims could directly affect lynch-
ing proponents through business transactions, relocation, and com-
munication strategies. Next, an examination of her assessment calls
forth questions about America’s use of lynching as a tool to regulate
behavior and the manner in which public opinion is shaped and lived
out in the private sector. Finally, the manner in which she used multiple
sources and methods to reconstruct particular lynching events under-
scores a continued need to reclaim stories. From a Christian ethics
perspective, her interpretation of America’s red record during the
years 1892–1910 challenges us to reassess our value systems in order
132 Ethical Complications of Lynching
to better understand how social practices often determine concepts
In an examination of the black church during what is perceived by
many as the lowest point in the life of this particular institution in
the late nineteenth century, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham observes
that “by 1890, it had become preeminently clear that the black com-
munity would have to devise its own strategies of social and political
And in 1892, Wells “maintained, that, in every sec-
tion of our land, the accused should have a fair, impartial trial, so that
a man who is colored shall not be hanged for an offense, which, if he
were white, would not be adjudged a crime.”13
As Wells saw it,
[i]f the Southern people in defense of their lawlessness, would tell the
truth and admit that colored men and women are lynched for almost
any offense, from murder to a misdemeanor, there would not now be
the necessity for this defense. But when they intentionally, maliciously
and constantly belie the record and bolster up these falsehoods by the
words of legislators, preachers, governors and bishops, then the Negro
must give to the world his [sic] side of the awful story.14
Hence, her analysis of southern horrors and mob rule is a gate-
way through which we can assess the resilience of individuals who,
through an intentional adaptation to new environments, can position
themselves to critique situations. This change in perspective requires,
though, that we become proficient in interpreting symbolic represen-
tations of injustice in order to maintain a sense of authenticity that
is essential if we are to name accurately that which constitutes our
reality. A refocus of energy can then translate into a commitment to
evaluate survival strategies with a goal to mitigate violence. In this
regard, Wells’s social critique can function as a guide to demonstrate
how we can give voice to personal pain that is reflective of a larger
problem that emerges from and is informed by a shared story.
Wells communicated the effects of lynching that were silently con-
doned by those deemed to possess the requisite expertise required to
implement and maintain order. In essence, she questioned the validity
of the parameters that determine what contributes to the common
good. In Southern Horrors, Wells listed four immediate effects of
lynching. In particular, she identified (1) the lives it takes, (2) the rank
cruelty and outrage to the victims, (3) the prejudice it fosters, and
(4) the stain it places against the good name of a weak race.15
consequences are both independent factors but at the same time inter-
twined to provide a more comprehensive picture of conditions that
Just Act 133
fostered an environment where blacks were hung, shot, decapitated,
and/or burned on a routine basis with rarely any objection. As Wells’s
assessment of lynching illustrates, an analysis of statistical data can
provide a framework against which we can explore terror’s impact on
Historical lynch statistics are indeed daunting. Yet sitting with the
tions are necessary first steps for anyone who is serious about gaining
insight into the extent of the problem of legally sanctioned domestic
terror. To examine the causes of lynching from both an historical and
contemporary perspective is one way to articulate theological-ethical
implications associated with southern horrors as well as to assess its
devastating effects. Crucial insights on survival techniques can also be
gleaned when we evaluate responses to mob rule.
The questions that emerge from this ethical interrogation can, in
turn, function to guide an examination into the methods associated
with lynching. Attention is therefore directed not only to cause and
effect ascribed to lynch practices but also to the grotesqueness that
characterizes this pattern of injustice. Wells presented both an analy-
sis of the atrocities of lynch law and a guide to understand the perva-
siveness of mob rule and its associated propaganda and tactics. Her
argument suggests that failure to think critically and to raise perti-
nent concerns may result in diminished liberties that quickly become
Thus, it is important to remember that a response to an encoun-
ter with injustice can become a catalyst to promote justice. For, as
Wells stated, “the awful death-roll that Judge Lynch is calling every
week is appalling,”16
and although bodies are not displayed from
trees on a regular basis,17
the denial of due process of law in one too
many jurisdictions to people of color suggests that perhaps lynching,
the malicious taking of an alleged criminal’s life without benefit of
due process of law, is still used to disrupt lives.18
And when we take
into account the societal impact of contemporary forms of lynching,
most notably the subjective interpretation of statutes by law enforce-
ment officials, Wells’s 1892 recommendation continues to function
as a viable resource from which to articulate an effective response to
advocate for justice.
Wells reminds us that it is important that we search for meaning
in historical treasures and that we articulate that the noose, a sign
of white supremacy and terror, should not be viewed lightly by any
American committed to justice. Her reconstruction of remembrances,
134 Ethical Complications of Lynching
of data, of reality, is indeed, as she observed, “a contribution to truth,
an array of facts, the perusal of which it is hoped will stimulate this
great American Republic to demand that justice be done though the
From Wells, we gain a greater appreciation for risks
that are often associated with truth telling. She also reminds us that
it is important to become more intentional in questioning general
assumptions. When we are purposeful in our fact-finding, it is pos-
sible that we too will arrive at a similar juncture as Wells and rec-
ognize, as she did, that while it is “with no pleasure that we have
dipped our hands in the corruption here exposed,”20
rors, though disguised to reflect twenty-first-century practices,21
still very much an aspect of American culture.
I wrote this epigraph, as well as others used at the beginning of each part, to1.
represent what I term cautionary lessons and ethical motifs contained in Ida
B. Wells’s works.
Using the genre biomythography defined by Audre Lorde, this story describes2.
the meanings of identity within the structure of personal, social, cultural, and
historical life. For an example, see Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My
Name (Freedom, CA: Crossing, 1982).
Jonathan Markovitz,3. Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory
(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), xvi.
Ida B. Wells married attorney Ferdinand L. Barnett in 1895 and began to4.
publish as Wells-Barnett, though she did not consistently hyphenate her
name. For example, her 1909 essay “Mob Murder in a Christian Nation”
was written under her maiden name. Throughout this document, I use her
maiden name as an indicator to symbolize that an awareness of self can often
function as a catalyst to shape the manner in which we respond to issues
both within and beyond our communities of origin. Information on her life
is derived primarily from Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B.
Wells, ed. Alfreda M. Duster (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press,
1970). See Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett
compiled with an Introduction by Trudier Harris (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1991), 3–13; Ida B. Wells, The Memphis Diary of Ida B.
Wells: An Intimate Portrait of the Activist as a Young Woman, ed. Miriam
Decosta-Willis with a Foreword by Mary Helen Washington and Afterword
by Dorothy Sterling (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1995); Ida B. Wells-Barnett,
On Lynchings with an Introduction by Patricia Hill Collins (Amherst, NY:
Humanity, 2002), 5–6. For a timeline of significant events in Wells’s life, see
the chronology in Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The
Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1900, ed. Jacqueline Jones
Royster (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997), 209–212. I refer to the
text edited by Royster.
Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law” (Ida B. Wells papers [Box 10, Folder 5], Special5.
Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library), 27–28.
While this was Memphis’s first recorded lynching since the Civil War, in his6.
study of Reconstruction historian Eric Foner provides a brief account of the
city’s 1866 race riot. Foner writes,
In May, an altercation that began when two horse-drawn hacks, one
driven by a white man, the other by a black, collided on a Memphis
street, escalated into three days of racial violence. White mobs, aided
and abetted by the city police, assaulted blacks on the streets and
invaded their neighborhoods. By the time order had been restored, at
least forty-eight persons, nearly all of them black, had been killed and
hundreds of dwellings, schools, and churches looted or destroyed. (Eric
Foner, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation & Reconstruction
[New York: Vintage, 2006], 118)
Although Wells’s anti-lynching publications serve as the primary basis from1.
which a Christian ethic of resistance is delineated in this study, the following
works indicate the broad range of sources that address the topic of lynching.
James Cutler, Lynch Law: An Investigation into the History of Lynching
in the United States (New York: Longmans, Green, 1905); W. Fitzhugh
Brundage, ed., Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South (Chapel Hill,
NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Michael J. Pfeifer, Rough
Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874–1947 (Urbana, IL: University
of Illinois Press, 2004); William Pinar, The Gender of Racial Politics and
Violence in America: Lynching, Prison Rape and the Crisis of Masculinity
(New York: Peter Lang, 2001).
Kate Tuttle, “Lynching,” ed. Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,2.
Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience,
2nd ed., volume 3 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 663.
Arthur F. Raper,3. The Tragedy of Lynching (Chapel Hill, NC: University of
North Carolina Press, 1933; reprint, Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003), 47.
C. Vann Woodward and Kenneth Stampp provide historical analysis of4.
this concept. See C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow,
2nd rev. ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1966); Kenneth Stampp,
The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (New York:
W. Fitzhugh Brundage,5. Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia,
1880–1930 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 2.
Cf. Federal Bureau of Investigations, Hate Crime, http://www.fbi.gov/hq/6.
cid/civilrights/hate.htm (accessed June 20, 2007).
Ida B. Wells,7. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching
Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1900, ed. Jacqueline Jones Royster (Boston,
MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997), 133.
Ida B. Wells,8. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, ed. Alfreda
M. Duster (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970). See Ida B. Wells-
Barnett, Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett compiled with an Introduction
by Trudier Harris (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 47.
As noted in the chronology compiled by Royster, in 1899 Wells became co-9.
owner with Rev. Taylor Nightingale and J. L. Fleming, of the Free Speech
and Headlight, Royster, Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 210.
Wells,10. Crusade for Justice, 52.
Wells’s commitment to live out her understanding of justice was based on her11.
belief “that we should defend the cause of right and fight wrong wherever we
saw it.” Wells, Crusade for Justice, 47–48.
Valuable discussions on the media’s ability to influence social views include12.
Martin E. Dann, ed., The Black Press, 1827–1890: The Quest for National
Identity (New York: Putnam, 1971); Carl Senna, The Black Press and the
Struggle for Civil Rights (New York: African-American Experience, 1993);
and Charles A. Simmons, The African-American Press: A History of News
Coverage during National Crises with Special Reference to Four Black
Newspapers, 1827–1965 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998).
John Hope Franklin, “Introduction,” ed. Alfreda M. Duster,13. Crusade for
Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (Chicago, IL: University of
Chicago Press, 1970), ix.
Franklin, “Introduction,” ix.14.
The15. Chicago Tribune and New Orleans Times Picayune are examples
of newspapers from which Wells extracted data to articulate a counter-
assessment of the alleged causes of lynchings. Wells specifically stated in A
Red Record that a primary reason to write was
to give the record which has been made, not by colored men, but that
which is the result of compilations made by white men, of reports sent
over the civilized world by white men in the South. Out of their own
mouths shall the murderers be condemned. For a number of years the
Chicago Tribune, admittedly one of the leading journals of America,
has made a specialty of the compilation of statistics touching upon
lynching. The data compiled by that journal and published to the
world January 1st, 1894, up to the present time has not been disputed.
In order to be safe from the charge of exaggeration, the incidents
hereinafter reported have been confined to those vouched for by the
Tribune. (Wells, Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 82)
Franklin, “Introduction,” x.16.
Franklin, “Introduction,” ix.17.
Franklin, “Introduction,” ix.18.
Franklin, “Introduction,” x.19.
Franklin, “Introduction,” x.20.
Wells,21. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 51.
Cutler,22. Lynch Law, 155–192 and 229–230.
Cheryl Jeanne Sanders, “Womanist Ethics: Contemporary Trends and23.
Themes,” Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics (1994): 299–305.
Cannon appropriated Alice Walker’s concept and definition in relation to
black women’s traditions of biblical interpretation. Katie Geneva Cannon,
Black Womanist Ethics (Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1988).
See Alice Walker,24. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose
(Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1983) for her complete four-part definition
Selected works by Grant, Williams, and Townes, reflect the depth and breadth25.
of intellectual contributions to theological education by individuals who self-
identify as womanist. Jacqueline Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black
Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response (Atlanta,
GA: Scholars, 1989); Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The
Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993); Emilie
M. Townes, In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness
(Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1995).
A womanist historiographical process must take seriously the limitations26.
and in-built biases of existing documentation while simultaneously exam-
ining alternative data sources such as lynch statistics and photographs.
This strategy, along with a rereading of previously used materials, can be
employed to recover and construct more adequate narratives of shared sto-
ries. For additional information, see Katie Geneva Cannon, Alison P. Gise
Johnson, and Angela D. Sims, “Living It Out: Womanist Works in Word,”
Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 21, no. 2 (2005): 135–146; Stacey
M. Floyd-Thomas, Mining the Motherlode: Methods in Womanist Ethics
(Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2006), 104–168.
Wells extracted data collected by newspapers, such as the27. Chicago Tribune
and New Orleans Times Picayune, to articulate a counter-assessment of the
causes attributed to lynchings. This publication evaluates the statistical data
to examine long-term implications based on human response to a specific
Lynching imagery can be used as a way to both illustrate and understand cul-28.
ture. Examples of this are provided by James Allen et al., Without Sanctuary:
Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palms, 2000); Dora
Apel, Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob (New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004); Chapter five of Jacqueline
Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature
(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Each document is discussed in detail later in this book.29.
Brundage,30. Lynching in the New South, 1.
Mildred Thompson, “Ida B. Wells-Barnett: An Exploratory Study of an31.
American Black Woman, 1893–1930” (Ph.D. diss., The George Washington
University, 1979); and Ida B. Wells: An Exploratory Study of an American
Black Woman, 1893–1930 (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1990).
For example, the first doctoral dissertation about Wells, written by Mary32.
Magdelene Boone Hutton in 1975, explored the significance of Wells’s rheto-
ric in shaping a movement. Hutton’s project emphasized events that com-
pelled Wells to become an anti-lynching crusader. See Shirley W. Logan,
“Rhetorical Strategies in Ida B. Wells’s ‘Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All
Its Phases,’” Sage 8, no. 1 (Summer 1991): 3–9.
Emilie M. Townes,33. Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope (Atlanta, GA:
Wells,34. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 72.
Wells,35. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 154.
For instance, Spike Lee,36. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts;
Final Call Incorporating (FCI) Broadcasting, The Unmasking of New
Orleans: Documentary on Hurricane Katrina.
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project,37.
1936–1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and
500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were
collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works
Progress Administration (WPA) and assembled and microfilmed in 1941
as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the
United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. This online collection is
a joint presentation of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions
of the Library of Congress and includes more than 200 photographs from the
Prints and Photographs Division that are now made available to the public
for the first time. Born in Slavery was made possible by a major gift from the
Citigroup Foundation; see The Library of Congress, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/
ammem/snhtml/ (accessed May 15, 2007).
Brundage’s multidisciplinary approach highlights the importance of engag-38.
ing in a theological ethical analysis of lynching, while Dray in very unam-
biguous language names the motives, perpetrators, supporters, and victims
of lynching. See their award-winning books Lynching in the New South and
At the Hand of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (New
York: Modern Library, 2003).
For additional information on womanist ethical frameworks see Katie Geneva39.
Cannon, Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community
(New York: Continuum, 1995); Delores S. Williams, “Womanist/Feminist
Dialogue: Problems and Possibilities,” Journal of Feminist Studies in
Religion 9 (Spring–Fall 1993): 67–73.
Part One Identity and Formation
For information on historiography see Darrell L. Whiteman, “Traditional1.
Historiography and Ethnohistory: Strange Bedfellows, or Necessary
Companions in Missiology?” Mission Studies 6, no. 1 (1989): 96–98; W. D.
Wright, Black History and Black Identity: A Call for a New Historiography
(Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002); Benjamin Quarles, Black Mosaic Essays in
Afro-American History and Historiography (Amherst, MA: University of
Massachusetts Press, 1988).
See Stephen B. Bevans,2. Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, NY:
On African-American identity, see e.g., Patrick Rael,3. Black Identity and
Black Protest in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill, NC: University of
North Carolina Press, 2002); Kenneth Mostern, Autobiography and Black
Identity Politics: Racialization in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge,
England: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
4. The nature and extent of slavery during the Civil War can be ascertained from
the following: Ira Berlin, Barbara J. Fields, Steven F. Miller,Joseph P. Reidy,
and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery,
Freedom, and the Civil War (New York: New, 1992); Ira Berlin and Leslie S.
Rowland, eds., Families & Freedom: A Documentary History of African-
American Kinship in the Civil War Era (New York: Press, 1997); Jacqueline
Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family,
from Slavery to the Present (New York: Vintage, 1995); Julius E. Thompson,
Black Life in Mississippi: Essays on Political, Social and Cultural Studies in
a Deep South State (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2001).
5. The documentation on Reconstruction is extensive. For example Robert
Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall,
1969); Emma Lou Thornbrough, ed., Black Reconstructionists (Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972); Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in
Mississippi, 1865–1890 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina
Press, 1947; New York: Harper and Row, 1965); Forrest G. Wood, Black
Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation (Los Angeles, CA: University of
California Press, 1970).
One Black Slave Family’s Moral Situation
JohnW. Blassingame,1. TheSlaveCommunity:PlantationLifeintheAntebellum
South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 78. Blassingame’s chapter
on “The Slave Family” is extremely helpful in analyzing the black family’s
moral situation, especially when detailed information about a particular fam-
ily is not included in biographical source documents.
Wells said her parents who “were slaves and married as such, were married2.
again after freedom came,” (Wells, Crusade for Justice, 7). Blassingame points
out that “because they were denied all protection which the law afforded,
slaves had an almost mythological respect for legal marriage” (Blassingame,
The Slave Community, 87). Based on information in Wells’s autobiography,
Elizabeth Wells, classified as a slave for about twenty-six years, “was not
forty when she died” in 1878. See Duster, Crusade for Justice, 9. From this
minute detail, we can estimate Wells’s mother was born between 1837 and
1839. Wells’s father’s gravestone records 1840 as James Wells’s birth year.
Thus he was a slave for approximately twenty-five years. See Wells, The
Memphis Diary, 22.
For additional information on slave marriages in Mississippi, see Noralee3.
Frankel, Freedom’s Women: Black Women and Families in Civil War Era
Mississippi (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 8–14.
Ben Wynne,4. Mississippi’s Civil War: A Narrative History (Macon, GA:
Mercer University Press, 2006), 13. This trend continued in Mississippi and
by 1862, “the midpoint of the war, slaves made up a majority of the state’s
population,” 140–141. Wynne evaluates reasons for preserving the Union
and protecting a way of life from both a northern and southern perspective.
In his analysis, Wynne compares and contrasts various military strategies
through biographical sketches of some of the key Union and Confederate
military leaders. Some attention is given to the socioeconomic impact of the
Civil War. However, a distinguishing feature of Wynne’s research is the evi-
dence he presents to refute some common myths promoted by Confederate
sympathizers. One of the main ways in which he deconstructs commonly held
misconceptions is to analyze motives presented to solicit support for the war
as well as to examine claims used to justify the shift from an all-volunteer to a
draft-dependent Confederate army. His investigation of property owners and
their role in determining military enlistment criteria, e.g., is an evaluation of
class dynamics. With this knowledge of class distinctions Wynne examines
(1) the role of the slave as servant to owners or lessees; (2) the role of freed-
men in the service to the Union; and (3) the South’s position on slaves bear-
ing arms. Although Wynne assesses a number of perspectives to determine
the Civil War’s impact on Mississippi, he relies quite extensively on John K.
Bettersworth, Confederate Mississippi: The People and Policies of a Cotton
State in Wartime (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1943;
Philadelphia: Porcupine, 1978). Bettersworth’s research was written with the
express purpose “to present as completely as possible the local economic,
social, and political scene in the state during the war years,” vi. His analy-
sis of the history of secession, class issues regarding military service, justi-
fication for war or the Negro problem, and the economic impact of war on
Mississippi’s way of life is written from the perspective of the slaveholder.
Wynne,5. Mississippi’s Civil War, 12. But “by the midpoint of the war, the
state’s economy was already in a downward spiral from which it would never
recover” (140). The research of numerous scholars, as well as my own research
on lynching, draws similar parallels about race-based lynching and econom-
ics, which I explore in part three.
Wells had three sisters Eugenia, Annie, and Lily and four brothers James,6.
George, Eddie who died of spinal meningitis, and Stanley who died in 1878.
See Wells, Crusade for Justice, 15.
Wynne, providing some background information on Holly Springs, tells us7.
that this city, about forty miles from Memphis, Tennessee, “settled since the
1820s, it became Marshall County’s seat of government when the state orga-
nized the old Chickasaw holdings in 1836. Almost from the time it was offi-
cially founded until the war broke out, Holly Springs was a boomtown and
a major hub of North Mississippi’s cotton economy,” Wynne, Mississippi’s
Civil War, 83.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 10, 1814, Pemberton was8.
an 1837 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
His loyalty to the South is attributed to his wife, a native of the common-
wealth of Virginia, and to his many years of military service in the south-
ern states prior to the Civil War. For additional information on Pemberton
see Wynne, Mississippi’s Civil War, 95–146; Michael B. Ballard, “Misused
Merit: The Tragedy of John C. Pemberton,” ed. Steven E. Woodworth, Civil
War Generals in Defeat (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1999),
141–160; Michael B. Ballard, Pemberton: A Biography (Jackson, MS:
University Press of Mississippi, 1991).
Grant, a member of the United States Military Academy’s class of 1843, is9.
recognized by many as the symbol of Union Victory during the Civil War.
He became the eighteenth president of the United States in 1869. See Wynne,
Mississippi’s Civil War, 59–146; A. L. Conger, The Rise of U.S. Grant (New
York: Century, 1931); William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography (New York:
Wynne,10. Mississippi’s Civil War, 82.
Wynne,11. Mississippi’s Civil War, 83. Wynne also notes that “while the
December 19, 1862 raid on Holly Springs was a stirring victory for the
Confederates...who loaded as many supplies as they could take with them
and then set fire to the rest,...it represented an embarrassing defeat for the
federals,...and a critical loss from a strategic standpoint,” 85–87.
Wynne,12. Mississippi’s Civil War, 2.
Wynne,13. Mississippi’s Civil War, 3.
Wynne,14. Mississippi’s Civil War, 172.
Even though Wells indicates that her paternal grandmother was married15.
(Duster, Crusade for Justice, 9), we are not given any additional informa-
tion to date this marriage. We also know that “Miss” Peggy had at least two
other children, a son and a daughter. See Duster, Crusade for Justice, 11–17.
Of interest also is the fact that while Wells associates titles, “Mr. and Miss,”
with references to her father’s former slave owners, this same deference is not
applied in the one statement in which she provides her paternal grandmoth-
er’s name. The fact that Wells does not identify her paternal grandmother’s
last name reflects a phenomenon that Alison P. Gise Johnson sees as a pathol-
ogy that reveals the depth of cultural indoctrination imposed on persons
of African descent during slavery that is tantamount to a form of “social
suicide as all of their heritage and beginnings are whisked away with the
erasure of their names.” For additional information about “specific examples
of women known simply by a first name,” Gise Johnson notes that historian
“Betty Collier-Thomas makes reference to and discusses the phenomenon
as it is evinced in slave women preachers and prophetesses of whom there
is no substantial record.” Gise Johnson emphasizes that “as observable a
phenomenon as it is for slaves of African descent, no record suggests the
same for those who would be identified as racially white.” Alison P. Gise
Johnson, “Dissenting Opinions: An Ethical Examination of the Impact of
Historiography on Theorizing Violence and Constructing Social Justice as
Exemplified in the Gaddis/Sims Oral Memories, 1858–1998,” (Ph.D. diss.,
Temple University, 2001), 115.
Wells,16. Crusade for Justice, 8.
Wells,17. Crusade for Justice, 8.
Wells,18. Crusade for Justice, 8.
Wynne,19. Mississippi’s Civil War, 139.
Charles Sackett Sydnor,20. Slavery in Mississippi (The American Historical
Association, 1933; Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1965), 248.
Blassingame,21. The Slave Community, 97.
Wells,22. Crusade for Justice, 8.
Wells,23. Crusade for Justice, 8.
Wells,24. Crusade for Justice, 9–10.
Wynne,25. Mississippi’s Civil War, 180.
Stampp,26. The Peculiar Institution, 356.
Blassingame,27. The Slave Community, 98.
Wells,28. Crusade for Justice, 9.
James F. Childress, “Autonomy,” ed. James F. Childress and John29.
Macquarrie, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics (Philadelphia,
PA: Westminster, 1986), 51–53.
Blassingame,30. The Slave Community, 79.
Blassingame,31. The Slave Community, 99.
Blassingame,32. The Slave Community, 103.
Wells,33. Crusade for Justice, 9–10. Although this remark refers to the con-
versation between her father and his mother, it is indicative of how Wells’s
understanding of justice was strongly influenced by a heightened awareness
of American chattel slavery.
Two Freed-Person of Color’s Moral Situation
Wynne,1. Mississippi’s Civil War, 179.
Mississippi officially reentered the Union in 1870 under Republican control2.
(Wynne, Mississippi’s Civil War, 183).
Implemented by former confederate states during the brief years that spanned3.
the end of the Civil War and the initiation of Reconstruction, black codes
functioned as a mechanism to limit ways in which individuals transitioned
from slavery to freedom. Designed to minimize disruption to former slave
owners and others who benefitted directly from a free labor pool, black codes
imposed restrictions that often resulted in the arrest of unemployed freed
persons of color who were, in turn, released to the custody of Caucasian
property owners. This practice contributed to an oppressive system of share-
cropping that, in many cases, guaranteed a system of unending indebted-
ness and systemic poverty. In addition, imprisoned vagrants comprised
labor pools, known as chain-gangs, upon which America’s prison industrial
complex—a privately controlled complex business economic network—is
based. Chattel slavery may have been abolished legally but enacting black
codes ushered in an era of nuevo slavocracy and its associated inhumane
labor practices, denial of due process, extortion, and juvenile legal processes,
For additional information on black codes, see Foner, Forever Free, 95–100
as well as a succinct analysis offered by historian John Hope Franklin,
Reconstruction after the Civil War, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of
Chicago Press, 1994), 47–56. Wynne also offers a summary of Federal
Reconstruction as well as the shift to state reconstruction in the mid-1870s
with emphasis on the black codes. See Wynne, Mississippi’s Civil War,
Franklin,4. Reconstruction after the Civil War, 47.
Woodward,5. The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 23.
W. E. B. Du Bois,6. Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880 (New York:
Free, 1935, 1962), 177.
Franklin,7. Reconstruction after the Civil War, 48.
Wynne,8. Mississippi’s Civil War, 181.
Franklin,9. Reconstruction after the Civil War, 49.
Franklin,10. Reconstruction after the Civil War, 51.
While the black codes were developed to restrict the rights of emancipated11.
persons of color, the Freedmen’s Bureau was established to assist African
Americans in their transition from slaves to citizens. Foner correctly describes
the responsibilities of this agency as overwhelming. Individuals who worked
for the Bureau provided services to freed-persons that included “diplomat,
marriage counselor, educator, sheriff, judge, and jury.” In addition, Bureau
employees were responsible for “establishing schools, providing for the
destitute, adjudicating disputes between whites and blacks and among the
freedpeople, and securing former slaves and white Unionists equal treatment
before the courts.” Foner, Forever Free, 97.
See Jones’s analysis of the impact of the contract system and the challenges it12.
imposed on freed-women of color during Reconstruction. Cf. Jones, Labor
of Love, Labor of Sorrow, 55–78.
Wynne,13. Mississippi’s Civil War, 179.
Wells,14. Crusade for Justice, 9.
Foner,15. Forever Free, 94.
Foner,16. Forever Free, 94.
Wells,17. Crusade for Justice, 8.
Wells,18. Crusade for Justice, 8, FN4. Although the Fourteenth Amendment
was approved by Congress in 1866, Foner explains that
none of the measures of 1866 accorded black men the right to vote.
The Fourteenth Amendment finessed that issue by leaving suffrage
qualifications to be determined by the states but providing that if a
state deprived any group of men of the franchise, it would lose some of
its representatives in Congress. (The penalty did not apply, however, if
the state denied women the right to vote.) (Foner, Forever Free, 118)
Foner,19. Forever Free, 122. This provision would remain in place “until the fall
of the last southern Republican governments in 1877” when black men were
disenfranchised. Almost a century would pass before President Lyndon B.
Johnson signed the 1964 Voting Rights Act recognizing the right of black
men and black women to vote, though not without a struggle.
Wells,20. Crusade for Justice, 8. Republicans retained political control in
Mississippi during the first ten years after the Civil War. Foner explains that
“in 1875...as the fall legislative elections approached, armed Democratic
bands terrorized black communities throughout Mississippi.” The failure of
the federal government to intervene was correctly interpreted as a “license
by the president (U. S. Grant) to intimidate and Democrats intensified their
campaign.” But many blacks were not so easily discouraged from voting.
“Braving the campaign of intimidation,” Foner writes, “blacks turned out
to vote in most parts of Mississippi. Where the violence was most intense,
however, the Republican vote declined precipitously.” And, “in the end,
Democrats swept control of the legislature.” Foner, Forever Free, 195–196.
Franklin,21. Reconstruction after the Civil War, 79.
Franklin,22. Reconstruction after the Civil War, 79–80.
Wells,23. Crusade for Justice, 8.
Woodward,24. The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 28.
Wells,25. Crusade for Justice, 9.
For background information on this organization see John Moffatt Mecklin,26.
The Ku Klux Klan: A Study of the American Mind (New York: Russell &
Russell, 1963); Arnold S. Rice, The Ku Klux Klan in American Politics
(Washington, DC: Public Affairs, 1962).
Franklin,27. Reconstruction after the Civil War, 153.
Wells,28. Crusade for Justice, 9.
Sally G. McMillen,29. To Raise Up the South: Sunday Schools in Black and
White Churches, 1865–1915 (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University
Press, 2001), 45–46.
Wells,30. Crusade for Justice, 9.
Wells,31. Crusade for Justice, 9.
Wells,32. Crusade for Justice, 9.
Wells,33. Crusade for Justice, 9.
Wells,34. Crusade for Justice, 9.
For a profile of Historically Black Colleges and Universities see Juan Williams35.
and Dwayne Ashley, I’ll Find a Way or Make One: A Tribute to Historically
Black Colleges and Universities (New York: Harper Collins, 2004).
In addition to Rust College, the Freedmen’s Aid Society of the Methodist36.
Episcopal Church founded Bennett College, Clark University, Clafin College,
Meharry Medical College, Morgan College, Philander Smith College, and
Wiley College. See Williams and Ashley, I’ll Find a Way or Make One,
320 and 425; James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South,
1860–1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988),
Black denominations were also actively involved in establishing schools. In37.
particular, the African Methodist Episcopal and The African Methodist
Episcopal Zion churches, two of the earliest denominations established by
blacks, were primary rivals with the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Daniel W. Stowell,38. Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the
South, 1863–1877 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Stowell,39. Rebuilding Zion, 137.
Wells,40. Crusade for Justice, 9. In 1882, the college was named in honor of
the Rev. Richard S. Rust, the founder of the Freedmen’s Aid Society and its
secretary for more than three decades. As an abolitionist, Rust amassed con-
siderable renown for his role in the antislavery crusade. He played a major
role in founding Wilberforce University, the nation’s oldest private African-
American university. A collaborative effort of the Methodist Episcopal
Church and African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rust served as chair of the
board of trustees and the institution’s first president, a position he held until
the African Methodist Episcopal Church became sole owner of the university
in 1863. Information on Richard S. Rust and Rust College is derived from
Ralph S. Morrow, Northern Methodism and Reconstruction (East Lansing,
MI: Michigan State University Press, 1956); Williams and Ashley, I’ll Find
a Way or Make One, 389; W. Michael Born, “Richard S. Rust, a Minister with
a Mission,” United Methodist News Service, October 3, 2000, http://archives.
BD5E-49AF-A4A6-CCA11062024D%7D&mid=3366 (accessed November 9,
Morrow,41. Northern Methodism and Reconstruction, 167.
Morrow,42. Northern Methodism and Reconstruction, 167.
Wells,43. Crusade for Justice, 22.
Morrow,44. Northern Methodism and Reconstruction, 236.
Morrow,45. Northern Methodism and Reconstruction, 236. This statement
raises questions about racial divisions among denominations and what prob-
lems and/or concerns this raised regarding educational plans on behalf of
recently freed persons of color. For additional information on educational
and social apartheid see William H. Watkins, The White Architects of
Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865–1954 (New York:
Teachers College Press, 2001); for information on African-American partici-
pation in educational initiatives see Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught:
African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill, NC:
University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
Christopher J. Lucas,46. American Higher Education: A History (New York:
St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994), 160–161.
Lucas,47. American Higher Education, 161; Anderson, The Education of
Blacks in the South, 1860–1935, 241. Without the establishment of these
institutions, we cannot begin to estimate the number of African Americans
who would not have had access to a college education.
Wells,48. Crusade for Justice, 21.
Wells,49. Crusade for Justice, 21.
Wells,50. Crusade for Justice, 22.
Stowell,51. Rebuilding Zion, 96.
Three Head of Family’s Response
Information on this event is derived from Molly Caldwell Crosby,1. The
American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that
Shaped Our History (New York: Berkley, 2006). Crosby’s analysis on prepa-
ration and response to this particular event has remarkable parallels to reac-
tions to Hurricane Katrina. About this particular outbreak of yellow fever,
Crosby said, “[I]t was a plague intrinsically tied to the worst and best in
humanity, brought on by the mistreatment of others and conquered only by
selfless sacrifice.” Crosby, The American Plague, viii. At some point, addi-
tional research and analysis that compares and contrasts two Mississippi
port towns’ (Memphis and New Orleans) response to disease and hurricanes
might prove beneficial in delineating the characteristics of an ethic of disas-
ter response. For additional information see Stephen Cresswell, Rednecks,
Redeemers, and Race: Mississippi after Reconstruction, 1877–1917
(Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi for the Mississippi Historical
Society, 2006), 176–183; Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell, A
Sherwood Bonner Sampler, 1869–1884, ed. Anne Razey Gowdy (Knoxville,
TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2000), 179–192; Edward J. Blum, “The
Crucible of Disease: Trauma, Memory, and National Reconciliation during
the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878,” Journal of Southern History 69, no. 4
(2003), http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5002568923 (accessed
October 10, 2006).
Crosby,2. The American Plague, 9.
Wells,3. Crusade for Justice, 10. Crosby notes that during the past ten years,
“two yellow fever epidemics, cholera and malaria had given Memphis a
reputation as a sickly city and a filthy one.” Recognized as the leading city
for carnival or Mardi Gras activities, Memphis lagged behind other cities
of comfortable size in investing in its infrastructure, especially its sewage
and sanitary systems. Lack of industrial foresight would ultimately prove
to be a fatal decision as the 1878 yellow fever would be significantly more
catastrophic than the 1867 or 1873 plagues. Crosby describes this 1878 epi-
demic as the greatest urban catastrophe of that period. In the aftermath of
the plague, the federal government created the National Board of Health. See
Crosby, The American Plague, 21–24.
Wells,4. Crusade for Justice, 10.
Wells,5. Crusade for Justice, 10–11 and 18.
McDowell,6. A Sherwood Bonner Sampler, 1869–1884, 183.
Wells,7. Crusade for Justice, 11.
Wells,8. Crusade for Justice, 16.
Wells,9. Crusade for Justice, 11.
Wells,10. Crusade for Justice, 11.
Nine-month-old Stanley died before Wells arrived in Holly Springs.11.
Wells,12. Crusade for Justice, 12.
Absalom Jones was ordained an Episcopal priest and served as pastor of the13.
first African-American Episcopal parish in the United States. Richard Allen,
a friend and contemporary of Jones, established the African Methodist
Episcopal Church. For information on Jones and Allen’s compassionate acts
during this epidemic see J. H. Powell, Bring Out Your Dead: The Great
Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793 (Philadelphia, PA: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 98–101; W. E. B. Dubois, The Philadelphia
Negro: A Social Study with a new Introduction by Elijah Anderson
(Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), Chapter three.
Wells,14. Crusade for Justice, 13.
This has a 2007 relative value, of approximately $79,000. This is the “average”15.
per-person output of the economy in the prices of the current year. See http://
vies%2Farian%2Fcurrent%2Fhowmuch.html (accessed February 8, 2009).
For information on black Masons see David T. Beito,16. From Mutual Aid to the
Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890–1967 (Chapel
Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Maurice Wallace, “Are
We Men? Prince Hall, Martin Delany, and the Masculine Ideal in Black
Freemasonry, 1775–1865,” American Literary History 9, no. 3 (1997), http://
www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=96441573 (accessed May 13, 2007).
Wells,17. Crusade for Justice, 16.
Wells,18. Crusade for Justice, 16.
Alfreda Duster explains that as an educator, Wells “took advantage of every19.
opportunity to improve her own academic skills with private lessons from
older teachers and those skilled in elocution and dramatics. She attended
summer sessions at Fisk University and traveled on excursions for teachers to
places of interest and value.” Alfreda Duster, “Introduction,” Ida B. Wells,
Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, ed. Alfreda Duster
(Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970), xviii.
Wells taught in Holly Springs, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; Visalia,20.
California; and Kansas City, Missouri.
Wells,21. Crusade for Justice, 22–23.
Wells,22. Crusade for Justice, 23 FN 2.
Wells does not provide an explanation about why she wrote under this23.
pseudonym. However, she knew Frances Ellen Watkins Harper personally.
Born a free black woman in Baltimore, Harper is recognized by many as
the most popular poet of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century.
In particular, she is credited with introducing the tradition of African-
American protest poetry. Active in social causes, such as abolition and tem-
perance, Harper used her prestige and writing to fight racism and to make
strong feminist statements. It is quite possible that Wells identified with
the consistent theme of self-reliance in Harper’s work, depicted, e.g., by
the protagonist “Iola Leroy,” a mulatto who becomes an advocate for her
people and a critic of race mixing. For additional information on Harper
see Iola Leroy (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1999); John Ernest, Resistance and
Reformation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature: Brown,
Wilson, Jacobs, Delany, Douglass, and Harper (Jackson, MS: University
Press of Mississippi, 1995), Chapter six; Sarah Robbins, “Gendering the
Debate over African Americans’ Education in the 1880s: Frances Harper’s
Reconfiguration of Atticus Haygood’s Philanthropic Model,” Legacy: A
Journal of American Women Writers 19, no. 1 (2002), http://www.ques-
tia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001902822 (accessed October 10, 2006).
Wells,24. Crusade for Justice, 37.
Wells,25. Crusade for Justice, 44.
Part Two A Matter of Perspective
Tremont Temple Baptist Church was established in 1839 as “a church1.
with free seats where everyone, rich or poor, black or white, should be on
the same religious level,” and as “the sabbath home for the stranger and
the traveler,” cf. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, “Tremont
Temple Baptist Church,” http://www.pluralism.org/research/profiles/display.
php?profile=71817 (accessed August 5, 2007).
The Boston Monday Lectureship, formed in 1875 and composed of white2.
clergymen and lay men and women, was a spin-off of the popular Monday
noon prayer meetings at Tremont Temple. Under the influence of its founder,
Presbyterian orator Falvius Josephus Cook, the lectureship became a cen-
ter of Boston intellectual life for over twenty years. Shirley Wilson Logan,
We Are Coming: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black
Women (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999), 87.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases” (Ida B. Wells Papers [Box 8, Folder 8],3.
Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library), 333.
Wells,4. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 56.
Brundage,5. Lynching in the New South, xii.
Cutler,6. Lynch Law, vii–ix.
Dray,7. At the Hands of Persons Unknown, xiii and 17–52; Orlando Patterson,
Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries (New
York: Basic Civitas, 1998), 171–232.
Cutler,8. Lynch Law, 241.
Brundage,9. Lynching in the New South, 18.
Pfeifer,10. Rough Justice, 7.
Brundage provides examples of black participation in mob activity. For11.
instance, he references black on black mob activity in Georgia and Virginia.
In addition, Brundage gives evidence of interracial vigilante collaboration
in Virginia. For additional information on black responses to mob types see
Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of
Southern Lynchings, 1882–1930 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press,
1995), 93–98; Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 45–47; E. M. Beck
and Stewart E. Tolnay, “When Race Didn’t Matter: Black and White Mob
Violence against Their Own Color,” ed. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Under
Sentence of Death, 132–154; for accounts of black participation in lynchings
see Patterson, Rituals of Blood, 176–181.
Brundage,12. Lynching in the New South, 19.
Norman B. Wood,13. The White Side of a Black Subject: A Vindication of the
Afro-American Race, from the Landing of Slaves at St. Augustine, Florida
in 1565, to the Present Time (Chicago, IL: American Publishing House,
1897), in Ida B. Wells Papers (Box 9, Folder 9), Special Collections Research
Center, University of Chicago Library, 379–380.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 344.14.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 344.15.
Four Wells on Lynching
Wells,1. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 57.
Wells,2. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 57.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 337.3.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 333. Wells’s knowledge of literature4.
is revealed in this quote where she draws parallels between lynch law and
The following texts offer insights into representations of sexuality in the5.
shaping of cultural norms. Joel Williamson, A Rage for Order: Black/White
Relations in the American South since Emancipation (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1986); Trudier Harris, Exorcising Blackness: Historical
and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (Bloomington, IN: Indiana
University Press, 1984).
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 333.6.
Cutler,7. Lynch Law, viii–ix.
The8. Charleston News and Courier, Memphis’s Daily Commercial, and the
Chicago Inter Ocean were among the mainstream newspapers referenced in
For additional information on rhetorical strategies employed by Wells see9.
Logan, “Rhetorical Strategies in Ida B. Wells’s ‘Southern Horrors,’” 70–97.
Wells,10. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 73; a copy of A Red Record’s
title page is not included in the volume introduced by Collins and Harris
omits personal identifiers in the text that she compiled, 138.
At the request of Isabelle Fyvie Mayo, a Scottish author whose “house had11.
been a sanctuary for a long while for East Indians who wanted education
and help” and Catherine Impey, a British editor of a “magazine published
in England on behalf of the natives of India,” Wells accepted an invitation
to speak about the atrocities of lynching in the United States as a way to
“arouse public sentiment against such horrible practices.” Wells, Crusade
for Justice, 82–86.
See Ronald E. Butchart,12. Northern Schools, Southern Blacks, and
Reconstruction: Freedmen’s Education, 1862–1875 (Westport, CT:
Five Investigating Facts
Although Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on1.
January 1, 1863, Mississippi did not vote to abolish slavery until August
Some of the African-American journalists mentioned in Wells’s autobiogra-2.
phy are I. Garland Penn who published The Afro-American Press in 1891;
T. Thomas Fortune and Jerome B. Peterson, owners and editors of the New
York Age, befriended Wells in the aftermath of Memphis’s 1892 lynching;
Mr. Bowser, editor of Kansas City’s Gate City Press; and Rev. William J.
Simmons editor of the Negro Press Association. Wells indicated that she met
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Gertrude Mossell. Wells described them as
“leading colored women of Boston and Philadelphia” but she neglected to
mention their contributions to the field of journalism. For instance, Ruffin
served as the editor and publisher of the first newspaper published by and
for African-American women and, in 1885, Mossell wrote the first woman’s
column published in a black newspaper.
Wells,3. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 50 and 53.
Wells,4. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 50 and 53.
In his “Epilogue,” Dray speaks to the ambiguity associated with questions5.
about lynching statistics and trends in the number of lynchings. Worth quot-
ing here, at length, is his opinion that
statistics, those of the Tuskegee Institute and others, generally show
that the main U.S. lynching epoch was from about 1890 to the Red
Summer of 1919, and that thereafter lynching totals began to decline.
Some historians consider the end to have come in the mid-1930s, when
the annual recorded lynchings of blacks decreased, for the first time,
to single digits. Others cite a specific incident such as the Duck Hill,
Mississippi, blowtorch lynching of 1937, probably the last spectacle
lynching in which a crowd watched victims tortured and put to death,
or the Claude Neal lynching of 1934, one of the last in which advance
publicity was used to attract a throng to a lynching site—and even in
that instance the mob did not produce their victim but did away with
him in secret. (Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown, 457–463)
The summary data in Wells’s6. A Red Record reflects “241 persons lynched,”
which differs slightly from the 239 persons lynched by states. See Wells,
Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 87. In “The White Side of a Black
Subject,” also quoting statistics from the Chicago Tribune, the author listed
236 lynchings in 1892. See Wood, The White Side of a Black Subject, 400.
This slight deviation in reported lynchings by Wells and Wood illustrates one
of the concerns surrounding the use of secondary sources and at the same
time points to a challenge regarding the reliability of data which researchers
continue to address. The numbers, as one aspect of lynching, provide evi-
dence that the events did occur. And, as Wells wrote in 1895,
not all nor nearly all of the murders done by white men, during the past
thirty years in the South, have come to light, but the statistics as gath-
ered and preserved by white men, and which have not been questioned,
show that during these years more than ten thousand Negroes have
been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and
legal execution. (Wells, Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 75)
Wells,7. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 87.
Wells,8. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 87. Data compiled from the
lynch law statistics that Wells included in A Red Record indicated that 5
black women were among the 160 blacks reported lynched in 1892.
Wells,9. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 153.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 346.10.
James W. Clarke,11. The Lineaments of Wrath: Race, Violent Crime, and
American Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2001), 153.
Wells,12. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 62.
Wells,13. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 87.
Frederick Douglass, “Hon. Fred. Douglass’s Letter,” ed. Jacqueline Jones14.
Royster, Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Antilynching Campaign
of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1900 (Boston, MA: Bedford, 1997), 51.
I make reference to the following texts, written by Douglass, for infor-15.
mation about his life. My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller,
Orton & Mulligan, 1855); Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an
American Slave, Written by Himself, ed. William L. Andrews and William S.
McFeely (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).
Referencing a property book belonging to the slave master who owned the16.
plantation on which Douglass was born, editors of The Norton Anthology of
African American Literature recognize February as Douglass’s birth month;
Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, general eds. (New York: W. W.
Norton, 1997), 299.
Frederick Douglass,17. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Reprinted from
the revised edition of 1892; London: Collier-MacMillan, 1962), 261.
Wells,18. Crusade for Justice, 116.
Wells,19. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 51.
Wells,20. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 53; John Nerone, Violence
against the Press: Policing the Public Sphere in U.S. History (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1994), 138–142.
Wells,21. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 51.
Wells,22. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 51.
Wells,23. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 51.
Wells,24. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 51.
Clarke,25. The Lineaments of Wrath, 145.
Kelly Brown Douglas,26. What’s Faith Got to Do with It?: Black Bodies/
Christian Souls (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005), 4.
Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860,” (1966), http://27.
www.pinzler.com/ushistory/cultwo.html for an online copy of Welter’s essay
(accessed May 22, 2007).
Additional information on this concept can also be found at http://www.28.
litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=242 (accessed May 22, 2007).
Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching,29. Southern
Women Look at Lynching (Atlanta, GA: Association of Southern Women
for the Prevention of Lynching, 1937).
Brundage,30. Lynching in the New South, 59. Brundage refers to the work of
Daniel J. Singal, The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought
in the South, 1919–1945 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina
Press, 1982); Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt against Chivalry: Jesse Daniel
Ames and the Women’s Campaign against Lynching (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1979); Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black-White
Relations in the American South since Emancipation (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1984).
Wells,31. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 58.
Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson assert that black women,32.
“in the peculiar morality of the South,” were “unrapeable,” Hine and
Thompson, A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women
in America (New York: Broadway, 1998), 171. For additional informa-
tion on the concept that black women are not raped, see, e.g., Gerda
Lerner, ed., Black Women in White America: A Documentary History
(New York: Vintage, 1972), 149–193; Hazel Carby, “ ‘On the Threshold
of Woman’s Era’: Lynching, Empire, and Sexuality in Black Feminist
Theory,” ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Race,”
Writing, and Difference (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985),
301–316; Anne Goodwyn Jones, “The Work of Gender in the Southern
Renaissance,” ed. Christopher Morris and Steven G. Reinhart, Southern
Writers and Their Worlds (College Station, TX: Texas A & M Press,
Wells,33. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 55.
Brundage,34. Lynching in the New South, 62.
Brundage,35. Lynching in the New South, 63.
Anne P. Rice, “Introduction: The Contest over Memory,” ed. Anne P. Rice,36.
Witnessing Lynching: American Writers Respond (New Brunswick, NJ:
Rutgers University Press, 2003), 16.
Wells,37. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 61.
I examine miscegenation and the construction of black female sexuality in38.
relation to lynching in more detail in part three.
Wells,39. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 61.
Wells,40. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 61.
Wells,41. Crusade for Justice, 136.
Wells,42. Crusade for Justice, 164.
Terrence Finnegan, “Lynching and Political Power in Mississippi and43.
South Carolina,” ed. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Under Sentence of Death:
Lynching in the South (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press,
Wells,44. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 61.
Wells,45. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 62.
Wells,46. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 63.
Wells,47. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 63.
Wells,48. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 64.
Wells,49. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 65.
Wells,50. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 66.
Wells,51. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 66.
Wells,52. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 66.
Wells,53. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 66.
Wells,54. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 68.
Tolnay and Beck researched lynchings in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida,55.
Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South
Carolina, and Tennessee from 1882 to 1930. Tolnay and Beck, A Festival of
Tolnay and Beck,56. A Festival of Violence, 50.
Tolnay and Beck,57. A Festival of Violence, 50–51.
Tolnay and Beck,58. A Festival of Violence, 53.
For information on anti-lynching legislative initiatives see Dray,59. At the Hands
of Persons Unknown, 46–47, 258–273, 336–344, 355–362, 433–434,
439–443, 448–450; Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret, 12–42; Christopher
Waldrep, ed., Lynching in America: A History in Documents (New York:
New York University Press, 2006), 216–228; for examples of initiatives at
a state level see Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 189–196. To date, a
federal anti-lynching law has not been enacted.
Six Interpreting Data
Wells,1. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 81–82.
Wells,2. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 75.
Markovitz,3. Legacies of Lynching, xvi.
Markovitz,4. Legacies of Lynching, xvi.
Brundage,5. Lynching in the New South, 19.
Wells,6. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 75.
Cornel West, “The Prophetic Tradition in Afro-America,” ed. Cornel West7.
and Eddie S. Glaude Jr., African American Religious Thought (Louisville,
KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 1040.
West, “The Prophetic Tradition in Afro-America,” 1040.8.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynchings” (Ida B. Wells9.
Papers [Box 8, Folder 8], Special Collections Research Center, University of
Chicago Library), 43.
Wells,10. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 80.
Wells,11. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 80–81.
Information on Ransom is derived from the following sources, Randall12.
K. Burkett and Richard Newman, eds., Black Apostles: Afro-American
Clergy Confront the Twentieth Century (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1978);
C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African
American Experience (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990); Ralph
E. Luker, The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform,
1885–1912 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991);
August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880–1915: Racial Ideologies in
the Age of Booker T. Washington (Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Paperbacks,
1966); Anthony B. Pinn and Victor Anderson, eds., Making the Gospel Plain:
The Writings of Bishop Reverdy C. Ransom (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 1999);
Milton C. Sernet, ed., Afro-American Religious History: A Documentary
Witness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1985).
Ransom’s papers are archived at Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce,13.
Reverdy Ransom, “The Negro and Socialism,” ed. Anthony B. Pinn and14.
Victor Anderson, Making the Gospel Plain, 187.
Sam W. Haynes and Christopher Morris, eds.,15. Manifest Destiny and
Empire: American Antebellum Expansionism (College Station, TX:
Texas A & M University Press, 1997), 10, http://www.questia.com/
PM.qst?a=o&d=89139430 (accessed June 9, 2007).
Haynes and Morris, eds.,16. Manifest Destiny and Empire, 10, http://www.
questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=89139430 (accessed June 9, 2007); for a
comprehensive study of Manifest Destiny see Albert K. Weinberg, A Study
of Nationalist Expansionism in American History (Baltimore, MD: Johns
Hopkins Press, 1935).
Seven Challenging “Alleged Causes”
Information extracted from a detailed account provided by Wells,1. Southern
Horrors and Other Writings, 160, 166, 169, 173.
Edward L. Ayers,2. Vengeance & Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-
Century American South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 243.
Ayers,3. Vengeance & Justice, 243.
Wells,4. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 166.
Ayers,5. Vengeance & Justice, 240.
Brundage,6. Lynching in the New South, 13.
Wells,7. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 160.
Wells,8. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 181–182.
In addition to mass mobs, Brundage identifies and supports, with extensive9.
examples, two additional typologies that he names terrorist mobs and private
mobs. See Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 17–48.
Brundage,10. Lynching in the New South, 36.
Wells,11. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 184.
Wells,12. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 169.
Wells,13. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 184–190.
Wells,14. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 166.
Wells,15. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 188–189.
Wells,16. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 188–189.
Wells,17. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 188–189.
Wells,18. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 159.
Wells,19. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 163.
Cutler,20. Lynch Law, 159.
Wells,21. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 163.
Wells,22. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 197.
Wells,23. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 193.
Wells,24. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 193.
Wells,25. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 208.
Part Three Beyond Rope and Fagot
Duster, “Introduction,”1. xiii. Wells’s daughter, Alfreda M. Barnett Duster,
references an 1897 observation made by Norman B. Wood. I reference
his response to lynching in chapter two of this book. In her introduction,
historian Glenda Gilmore, Gender & Jim Crow: Women and the Politics
of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (Chapel Hill, NC:
University of North Carolina Press, 1996), provides an assessment of
middle-class black women. Of particular note is her characterization of her
target audience. Although these competent and community-engaged women
“did not call themselves feminists,” Gilmore notes that “equality for women
grounded their thinking as they championed strategies to benefit all African
Americans.” Gilmore, Gender & Jim Crow, xv–xvi. Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s
research on early African-American feminists indicates that “when a small
group of free black ‘feminist-abolitionists’ in the North surfaced during
the early nineteenth century, among whom were Maria Stewart, Sojourner
Truth, and Frances E. W. Harper, the history of African American feminism
began,” Guy-Sheftall, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American
Feminist Thought (New York: New, 1995), 1.
Duster, “Introduction,” xiv. Linda O. McMurry’s research indicates that2.
“until 1893 only white newspapers in Boston praised Wells; the slanderous
insults from Memphis won Wells far more attention in the black press. In
England, however, Wells got glowing reviews from English papers. Such
attention made Wells possibly the most discussed individual in the black
press—aside from Frederick Douglass.” Linda O. McMurry, To Keep the
Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1998), 188–189.
Wells,3. Crusade for Justice, 235–236.
T. Thomas Fortune, editor of the4. New York Age and for whom Wells would
work after she was “exiled” from Memphis, said, after their initial meeting
in 1889, that “she has become famous as one of the few of our women who
handle a goose quill with diamond point as easily as any man in newspaper
work. If Iola (Wells’s pen name) were a man she would be a humming inde-
pendent in politics. She has plenty of nerve and is as sharp as a steel trap,”
Wells, Crusade for Justice, 33. Wells established herself as a journalist prior
to the advent of her crusade against lynching. Referred to as “the Princess of
the Press, no writer, the male fraternity not excepted, has been more exten-
sively quoted, none struck harder blows at the wrongs and weaknesses of
the race. She reaches the men by dealing with the political aspect of the race
question, and the women she meets around the fireside.” Wells, Crusade for
Wells,5. Crusade for Justice, 311.
Wells,6. Crusade for Justice, 311
Wells,7. Crusade for Justice, 313.
Apel,8. Imagery of Lynching, 44–45.
Tolnay and Beck,9. A Festival of Violence, ix.
Cannon,10. Black Womanist Ethics, 2.
For current scholarship on the connection between historical lynching11.
and contemporary forms of disguised representations of mob rule, see
Eliza Steelwater, The Hangman’s Knot: Lynching, Legal Execution, and
America’s Struggle with the Death Penalty (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2003);
Clarke, The Lineaments of Wrath, Chapter eleven. I find the analysis on
the economics of racism and the resulting social implications offered by
Mark Lewis Taylor and Dorothy Roberts helpful in explaining the intri-
cacies of policies that are often disguised to promote acts of justice. See
their respective works, Mark Lewis Taylor, The Executed God: The Way
of the Cross in Lockdown America (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001);
Dorothy Roberts, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (New
York: Basic, 2002).
For instance, art historian Dora Apel argues that “the appropriation of the12.
term lynching for increasingly diverse forms of perceived injustice threatens
to trivialize the historically specific content of the term. In this way, the
appropriation of lynching for other causes represents an attempt to create a
continuum by which one injustice is figured in terms of another and bears
the moral weight of the original referent,” Apel, Imagery of Lynching, 18.
Because lynching was not limited to the traditional rope and fagot and the
burning of human flesh, but also represented a prescribed method to control
human behavior of the oppressor and the oppressed, the term has contempo-
rary relevance with yet-to-be-determined consequences. To her credit, Apel
does provide examples of what she terms “legal lynchings” that illustrate the
degree to which prosecutors are given the latitude to ignore evidence that
might lead to an acquittal.
Clarke,13. The Lineaments of Wrath, 167.
Steelwater,14. The Hangman’s Knot, 229.
For information on wrongful convictions in the United States see, Andrew D.15.
Leipold, “How the Pretrial Process Contributes to Wrongful Convictions,”
American Criminal Law Review 42, no. 4 (2005), http://www.questia.
com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5012264630 (accessed May 12, 2007); Erik Luna,
“System Failure,” American Criminal Law Review 42, no. 4 (2005), http://
www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5012264638 (accessed May 12, 2007);
Andrew M. Siegel, “Moving Down the Wedge of Injustice: A Proposal for
a Third Generation of Wrongful Convictions Scholarship and Advocacy,”
American Criminal Law Review 42, no. 4 (2005), http://www.questia.com/
PM.qst?a=o&d=5012264642 (accessed May 12, 2007).
See, e.g., Samuel R. Gross, “Exonerations in the United States 1989 through16.
2003,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 95, no. 2 (2005), http://
www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5009798219 (accessed May 12, 2007);
Jerome M. Maiatico, “All Eyes on Us: A Comparative Critique of the North
Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission,” Duke Law Journal 56, no. 5
(2007), http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5021641141 (accessed
May 12, 2007).
Eight The Issue of Race and Lynching
Walker,1. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, 257.
Wells,2. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 70.
For example, Wells’s refusal to sit in a segregated rail car, although she had3.
purchased a first-class fare, resulted in a lawsuit that
was the first case in which a colored plaintiff in the South had appealed
to a state court since the repeal of the Civil Rights Bill by the United
States Supreme Court. The gist of that decision was that Negroes were
not wards of the nation but citizens of the individual states, and should
therefore appeal to the state courts for justice instead of to the federal
court. The success of my case would have set a precedent which others
would doubtless have followed. (Wells, Crusade for Justice, 20)
A typed and handwritten copy of this article is archived in Wells’s papers.4.
Spelling corrections are noted in brackets.
Ida B. Wells, “The Reign of Mob Law: Iola’s Opinion of Doings in the5.
Southern Field” (Ida B. Wells papers [Box 8, Folder 8], Special Collections
Research Center, University of Chicago Library), 1.
Tolnay and Beck,6. A Festival of Violence, 17.
In7. A Red Record, Wells summarized an article written by Frederick Douglass
in which he noted “three distinct eras of southern barbarism.” Lynching was
attributed first to a need to manage race riots, then as a means to discourage
full participation in government, and finally as a retaliatory response in defense
of white women. See Wells, Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 76–79.
Wells,8. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 81–82.
Wells-Barnett, “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynchings,” 46.9.
Wells-Barnett, “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynchings,” 46–47. It is10.
important to note that the governor did, however, find the sheriff negligent
in this 1907 Springfield, Illinois lynching. As a result, this move signaled, as
Wells quoted the governor, that “mob violence has no place in Illinois. It is
denounced in every line of the Constitution and in every Statute. Instead of
breeding respect for the law it breeds contempt” (51).
Tolnay and Beck,11. A Festival of Violence, 2.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 333.12.
Tolnay and Beck,13. A Festival of Violence, 75.
John Hope Franklin,14. Race and History: Selected Essays 1938–1988 (Baton
Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 132.
Apel,15. Imagery of Lynching, 1.
Henry Campbell Black,16. Black’s Law Dictionary, Revised Fourth Edition
(St. Paul, MN: West, 1968), 1423.
Clarke,17. The Lineaments of Wrath, 143.
Brundage,18. Lynching in the New South, 2.
Apel,19. Imagery of Lynching, 37.
Apel,20. Imagery of Lynching, 38.
Tolnay and Beck,21. A Festival of Violence, 20–21. In her analysis of lynching
as art, Dora Apel addresses the “white control of the black gaze,” Imagery of
Lynching, 10. A lack of familiarity with these undocumented social customs
led to the 1955 lynching of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi.
Tills’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, in an unprecedented act, allowed her
son’s lynched body to be viewed and photographed so that the world could
see that southern horrors and mob rule was still an aspect of American jus-
tice. See Mamie Till Mobley and Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence:
The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America (New York: Random
Wells’s six-week account of an 1899 lynching spree in Georgia illustrates that22.
“the real purpose of these savage demonstrations is to teach the Negro that
in the South he [sic] has no rights that the law will enforce.” Ida B. Wells-
Barnett, Lynch Law in Georgia (Chicago, IL: Chicago Colored Citizens,
1899), 1, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query (accessed October 15, 2003).
Michael Eric Dyson,23. Debating Race with Michael Eric Dyson (New
York: Basic Civitas, 2007), 115. Dyson is currently university professor at
Apel,24. Imagery of Lynching, 44. This was further compounded when the
Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson became the basis by
which states employed the separate but equal doctrine to justify caste sys-
tems. In a June 1910 essay, Wells noted that the social practice of lynching
“made the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution play-
things, a mockery and a byword; an absolute dead letter in the Constitution
of the United States.” Wells-Barnett, “How Enfranchisement Stops
Dyson,25. Debating Race with Michael Eric Dyson, 120.
Dyson,26. Debating Race with Michael Eric Dyson, 121. Peggy McIntosh is
perhaps best known for her work on deconstructing white privilege. She
is also the founder of the National SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and
Diversity) Project on Inclusive Curriculum. During this radio broadcast,
Dyson also pointed out additional ways in which race functions. For instance,
he noted that race “functions as an identity; it functions as an institutional
expression of supremacy, or defense to that supremacy; and it functions as
an ideology of superiority in a culture where...this constellation of relations
makes sure that brown and black are rendered inferior to white and so on.”
Dyson, Debating Race with Michael Eric Dyson, 123.
Gilmore,27. Gender & Jim Crow, 61. For sources on the “scientific” basis for
preconceived ideas about non-Europeans see Albert Somit and Steven A.
Peterson, Darwinism, Dominance, and Democracy: The Biological Bases
of Authoritarianism (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997); Janis Faye Hutchinson,
“The Resurgence of Genetic Hypotheses to Explain Social Behavior among
Ethnic Minorities,” ed. Janis Faye Hutchinson, Cultural Portrayals of African
Americans: Creating an Ethnic/Racial Identity (Westport, CT: Bergin &
Garvey, 1997), 5–25.
Hine and Thompson,28. A Shining Thread of Hope, 194.
Wells,29. Crusade for Justice, 71.
Apel,30. Imagery of Lynching, 25.
Tolnay and Beck,31. A Festival of Violence, 27.
Franklin,32. Race and History, 148.
For information on segregationist policies see Gregory Mixon,33. The Atlanta
Riot: Race, Class, and Violence in a New Southern City (Gainesville,
FL: University Press of Florida, 2005); Paul Gordon Lauren, Power and
Prejudice: The Politics and Diplomacy of Racial Discrimination (Boulder,
CO: Westview, 1996).
Tolnay and Beck,34. A Festival of Violence, 159.
Franklin,35. Race and History, 149.
Franklin,36. Race and History, 149.
Franklin,37. Race and History, 360.
Tolnay and Beck,38. A Festival of Violence, 75.
Tolnay and Beck,39. A Festival of Violence, 28. While most lynchings occurred
in southern states, this in no way absolved northern states nor the federal
government of its silence that sanctioned acts that denied African Americans
equal protection under the law.
Cannon,40. Black Womanist Ethics, 23.
Michele Wallace, “Foreword,” ed. Anne P. Rice,41. Witnessing Lynching:
American Writers Respond (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press,
Wallace, “Foreword,” xii–xiii.42.
Wallace, “Foreword,” xii.43.
Wallace, “Foreword,” xiii.44.
On music and black identity see, Guthrie P. Ramsey,45. Race Music: Black
Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (Berkeley, CA: University of California
Press, 2003); Charley Gerard, Jazz in Black and White: Race, Culture, and
Identity in the Jazz Community (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998); Samuel A.
Floyd, The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to
the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
For sources on quilting as an artistic expression of African-American distinc-46.
tiveness see, Olga Idriss Davis, “The Rhetoric of Quilts: Creating Identity
in African-American Children’s Literature,” African American Review
32, no. 1 (1998), http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001337970
(accessed September 14, 2007); Jontyle Theresa Robinson, Bearing Witness:
Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists (New York:
Rizzoli International, 1996).
Prayers, e.g., depict the literary richness of African Americans. See James47.
Melvin Washington, ed., Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers
by African Americans (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995).
Nine The Social Construction of Gender and
Wells-Barnett, “Lynch Law in Georgia,” 1.1.
For accounts of what she termed “color line justice” see Wells,2. Southern
Horrors and Other Writings, 128–130. As an example of the types of assaults
against black women by white men, Wells described the acquittal of a “gang
of white ruffians” who raped an African-American female in Baltimore,
Maryland. Cf. Wells, Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 128.
Wells,3. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 127.
Wells,4. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 117–118.
Nerone,5. Violence against the Press, 130.
See, e.g., Martha Hodes,6. White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the
Nineteenth-Century South (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999);
Stephanie Cole and Alison M. Parker, eds., Beyond Black and White: Race,
Ethnicity, and Gender in the U. S. South and Southwest (College Station,
TX: Texas A & M University Press, 2004); Mary Frances Berry, “Judging
Morality: Sexual Behavior and Legal Consequences in the Late Nineteenth-
Century South,” Journal of American History 78 (December 1991): 835–856;
Calvin C. Hernton, Sex and Racism in America (New York: Doubleday,
1965; New York: Anchor, 1988).
Angela Y. Davis,7. Women, Race & Class (New York: Vintage, 1983), 177.
Robyn Wiegman, “The Anatomy of Lynching,”8. Journal of the History
of Sexuality 3, no. 3 (1993): 457–458, http://www.questia.com/
PM.qst?a=o&d=96396809 (accessed June 20, 2007).
Anne P. Rice, ed.,9. Witnessing Lynching: American Writers Respond (New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 16.
Lynne Olson,10. Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil
Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970 (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 39.
Patricia Hill Collins,11. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness,
and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1991), 50.
Dray,12. At the Hands of Persons Unknown, 71–72.
Gilmore,13. Gender & Jim Crow, 68.
Dyson,14. Debating Race with Michael Eric Dyson, 127.
Franklin,15. Race and History, 325.
Wells,16. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 155.
Wells specifically encouraged developing partnerships with anti-lynching17.
leagues. Cf. Wells, Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 157.
Ten The Intersection of Economics and Lynching
Wells,1. Crusade for Justice, 70.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 335.2.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 335.3.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 335.4.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 335.5.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 334.6.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 334.7.
Tolnay and Beck,8. A Festival of Violence, 72.
Tolnay and Beck,9. A Festival of Violence, 72.
Tolnay and Beck,10. A Festival of Violence, 74–75.
Tolnay and Beck,11. A Festival of Violence, 75. The authors also state that “the
white aristocracy could benefit economically from mob violence against blacks
in at least two ways. First, in some situations racial violence may have been an
instrument that white planters and employers used to maintain control over
African-American laborers. Second, the white elite may have used racial vio-
lence to maintain a sharp cleavage between black and white labor,” 72.
Davis,12. Women, Race & Class, 185.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 337.13.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 337.14.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 337–338.15.
Wells,16. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 68.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 338.17.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 338.18.
Floyd W. Crawford to Alfreda M. Duster, March 27, 1963. Dr. Floyd W.19.
Crawford, then a member of the Department for Social Science, Norfolk
Division, Virginia State College (Dr. Crawford is deceased; the institution
is currently known as Norfolk State University), shared that during a visit
to Memphis he learned “that ‘The Curve,’ where the three men who were
victims of the mob had their store, was at the intersection of Walker Avenue
and Mississippi Boulevard” (Ida B. Wells Papers [Box 8, Folder 2], Special
Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library).
Crawford to Duster.20.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 344.21.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 344.22.
Wells,23. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 69.
Davis,24. Women, Race & Class, 190.
Tolnay and Beck,25. A Festival of Violence, 76–77.
Wells,26. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 173.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 333.27.
Part Four A Paradigm Shift
For a description of the approach Cutler used to evaluate the justifications1.
and conditions attributed to lynching, see Lynch Law, 155–226.
Wells,2. Crusade for Justice, 85–86.
For an account of Wells’s visits to England and Scotland in 1893 and 18943.
see Wells, Crusade for Justice, 87–113 and 125–223; McMurry, To Keep the
Waters Troubled, 188–199.
Wells,4. Crusade for Justice, 82 and 85; “In 1888, Impey launched this maga-
zine which was ‘devoted to the interests of the coloured race.’ She wrote a
substantial part of it herself, but relied on correspondents in America and dif-
ferent parts of the British Empire to supply her with first-hand information
and newspaper cuttings about the maltreatment of black people by white.”
Vron Ware, “To Make the Facts Known: Racial Terror and the Construction
of White Femininity,” ed. Reina Lewis and Sara Mills, Feminist Postcolonial
Theory: A Reader (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2003), 107.
Wells,5. Crusade for Justice, 82.
Wells,6. Crusade for Justice, 82.
Wells,7. Crusade for Justice, 82.
The attendance is listed at 1,200 in Wells’s autobiography, see Duster,8.
“Introduction,” Crusade for Justice, 129 and as 1,300 by McMurry, To
Keep the Waters Troubled, 208.
Charles F. Aked pastored the Pembroke Chapel in Liverpool from 1890 to9.
1906. Aked, after whom Wells named her oldest son Charles Aked Barnett,
pastored John D. Rockefeller’s Fifth Avenue Baptist Church in New York and
the First Congregational Church of San Francisco before he accepted Henry
Ford’s invitation in 1916 to participate in the European Peace Conference
in New York, an initiative “where representatives of neutral nations would
appoint a commission to work unremittingly (‘continuous mediation’) for
a peace acceptable to all belligerents.” Allan Nevins and Frank Ernest
Hill, “Henry Ford and His Peace Ship,” American Heritage Magazine,
February 1958, http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/
ah/1958/2/1958_2_65.shtml (accessed June 21, 2007).
Ida B. Wells to Frederick Douglass, March 13, 1894, The Frederick Douglass10.
Papers at the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/douglass_
corresp_index.pdf (accessed May 3, 2007).
See Wells’s letters to Douglass dated March 13, 1894, April 6, 1894, May11.
6, 1894, May 10, 1894, The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of
(accessed May 3, 2007).
Ida B. Wells to Frederick Douglass, March 13, 1894, The Frederick Douglass12.
Papers at the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/douglass_
corresp_index.pdf (accessed May 3, 2007).
Frederick Douglass to Rev. C. F. Aked, March 27, 1894, The Frederick13.
Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/
douglass_corresp_index.pdf (accessed May 3, 2007).
Ida B. Wells to Frederick Douglass, May 6, 1894, The Frederick Douglass14.
Papers at the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/douglass_
corresp_index.pdf (accessed May 3, 2007).
Frederick Douglass to Rev. C. F. Aked, March 27, 1894, The Frederick15.
Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/
douglass_corresp_index.pdf (accessed May 3, 2007).
For a description of racial invisibility and its cultural implications see Lewis R.1.
Gordon, Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought
(New York: Routledge, 2000); bell hooks, “Representing Whiteness in the
Black Imagination,” ed. Ruth Frankenberg, Displacing Whiteness: Essays in
Social and Cultural Criticism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997),
165–179; Sally Robinson, Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis (New
York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
Jeff Zorn, “Affirmative Action,’2. Commentary, January 2004, http://www.
questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5002056491 (accessed June 10, 2007); Paget
Henry, professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Brown University,
offers a more extensive definition that addresses the phenomenological
aspect of black invisibility in Caliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean
Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2000), 149–151, http://www.questia.
com/PM.qst?a=o&d=103351611 (accessed June 10, 2007).
Paul Laurence Dunbar,3. Selected Poems (New York: Penguin, 2004), 54. “We
Wear the Mask” was originally included in Dunbar’s 1895 publication From
Majors and Minors.
Dunbar,4. Selected Poems, 54.
Kelly Brown Douglas,5. Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist
Perspective (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 16.
Douglas,6. Sexuality and the Black Church, 16–17.
Mary Elizabeth Hobgood argues in7. Dismantling Privilege: An Ethics of
Accountability (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2000), that “privilege [white]
people are morally damaged, spiritually impoverished, and physically at risk
by a society structured to give unfair advantages to the few while it dis-
misses everyone’s needs for respect, affection, just communal relations, and a
healthy ecosphere,” vii. She develops her position in Chapters two and three,
“Dismantling Whiteness” and “An Economic Ethics of Right Relationship,”
36–106. For other studies of whiteness see Valerie Babb, Whiteness Visible:
The Meaning of Whiteness in American Literature and Culture (New York:
New York University Press, 1998); Mike Hill, ed., Whiteness: A Critical
Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1997); George Yancy, ed.,
What White Looks Like: African American Philosophers on the Whiteness
Question (New York: Routledge, 2004).
To give just one example of this, see Herbert Shapiro,8. White Violence and
Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery (Amherst, MA:
University of Massachusetts, 1988), 5–29.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 344.9.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 340–341.10.
Wells,11. Crusade for Justice, 64.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 336.12.
Wells,13. Crusade for Justice, 64.
Wells,14. Crusade for Justice, 64.
Reinhold Niebuhr,15. Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of
Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. D. B. Robertson (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John
Knox, 1957), 143.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 337.16.
Dray,17. At the Hands of Persons Unknown, 146.
See especially Niebuhr’s analysis of coercion in relation to power in18. Moral
Man and Immoral Society (New York: Touchstone, 1932), 231–256 as well
as his general essays on love and justice and race relations in Love and Justice,
125–132, 142–145, 152–154.
Niebuhr,19. Moral Man and Immoral Society, 234.
Niebuhr,20. Love and Justice, 153–154.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 346.21.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 346.22.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 346.23.
For additional information on Niebuhr’s position on civil disobedience as a24.
strategy to promote a just response, see Moral Man and Immoral Society,
Niebuhr,25. Moral Man and Immoral Society, 254.
Niebuhr,26. Moral Man and Immoral Society, 254.
For critiques of Niebuhr’s gradualism, with regard to race in America, see27.
Stephen G. Ray Jr., Do No Harm: Social Sin and Christian Responsibility
(Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 37–74; Traci West, Disruptive
Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter (Louisville, KY:
Westminster John Knox, 2006), 3–35.
Charles H. Long,28. Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the
Interpretation of Religion (Aurora, CO: Davies, 1999; Fortress,
Long,29. Significations, 7.
For a detailed explanation of signification as one way to further an30.
understanding of religion in America, see Long’s Introduction in
Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, “The Birth of African-American31.
Culture,” ed. Timothy E. Fulop and Albert J. Raboteau, African-American
Religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture (New York: Routledge,
Wells,32. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 66.
Long,33. Significations, 1.
Wells,34. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 75–82; Frederick Douglass,
“The Lessons of the Hour” (Baltimore, MD: Press of Thomas & Evans,
1894); also see Cutler, Lynch Law, 193–226.
Wells,35. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 76.
Wells,36. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 76–78.
Frederick Douglass, “The Lessons of the Hour,” 13.37.
Wells,38. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 80.
For additional information on discourse analysis, see Dutch linguist Tuen39.
A. van Dijk’s essay “Analyzing Racism through Discourse Analysis: Some
Methodological Reflections,” ed. John H. Stanfield II and Rutledge M.
Dennis, Race and Ethnicity in Research Methods (Newbury Park, CA: Sage,
For additional information on the role of discourse as a mechanism by which40.
racial prejudice is manufactured and proliferated see Chapter two in Tuen
A. van Dijk, Communicating Racism: Ethnic Prejudice in Thought and Talk
(Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1987), 30–118.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 344.41.
Wells,42. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 69–70.
John H. Stanfield II, “Methodological Reflections: An Introduction,” ed.43.
John H. Stanfield II and Rutledge M. Dennis, Race and Ethnicity in Research
Methods (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1993), 3.
Wells,1. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 65.
Wells, “Lynch Law,” 26.2.
Wells,3. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 82.
Wells,4. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 68. In his essay “The Roar on
South, 1880–1940,” Brundage points out that migration, for blacks, was an
act of agency. He states that “flight was one of the few responses to white
violence which at once was independent of whites and yet typically did not
inspire retaliation.” Brundage, Under Sentence of Death, 275. Concurring
with Brundage, Dray’s research “estimated 1.5 million black people migrated
from South to North between 1900 and the mid-1920s, with many more to
come in the decades following, and during the years 1914–1917 the north-
ward movement accelerated to between five thousand and ten thousand
people per month.” Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown, 223. It should
be noted that Dray’s statistical information does not include the number of
individuals who responded to Wells’s 1892 recommendation.
Wells’s safety was jeopardized and her character subjected to vicious distor-5.
tions as a result of her public stance on lynching. More than two centuries
later, the Texas Beef Group’s lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey on charges that
comments about “mad cow disease” during a 1996 production of her talk
show highlights the energy required when an alternative view threatens the
perceived point of privilege of a group that is not accustomed to having its
practices challenged. For additional information on the Texas Beef Group
v. Oprah Winfrey see LegalCaseDocs.com, “Texas Beef Group v Oprah
Winfrey,” http://www.legalcasesdocs.com/120/246/531.html (accessed June
26, 2007); Bob Janis, “Cattlemen Nervous as Battle with Oprah Looms,”
Reuters North America, January 12, 1998, http://www.mad-cow.org/
Constitution.html (accessed June 26, 2007).
Wells,6. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 155.
Wells-Barnett, “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynching,” 52. While this7.
connection, to my knowledge, has not been made explicitly in recent civil
rights cases, such as the December 2006 incident in Jena, Louisiana that was
resolved in June 2009, involving the prosecution of six African-American
juveniles as adults on initial charges of attempted second-degree murder for
a fight with a Caucasian classmate, the issue for Wells is not one of preferen-
tial treatment or an erroneous glamorization of the ongoing plight of black
Americans whose heritage is traced to slave ship and slave plantation logs.
Rather, what she passionately insists is that all Americans should recognize
that the failure to apply the same standard in similar situations can result in
anarchy, the long-term implications of which we have yet to realize.
Some examples of contributions to biblical studies by scholars who read8.
scripture from the underside include Brian K. Blount, general ed., True to
Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary
(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007); Musa W. Dube, ed., Other Ways of
Reading: African Women and the Bible (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical
Literature; Geneva: W. C. C. Publications, 2001); Vincent L. Wimbush, The
Bible and African Americans: A Brief History (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress,
2003); Rodney Steven Sadler Jr., Can a Cushite Change His Skin?: An
Examination of Race, Ethnicity, and Othering in the Hebrew Bible (New
York: T & T Clark, 2005); Allen Dwight Callahan, The Talking Book:
African Americans and the Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
2006); Michael Joseph Brown, Blackening of the Bible: The Aims of African
American Biblical Scholarship (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International,
2004); Robert Hood, Begrimed and Black: Christian Traditions on Blacks
and Blackness (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1994).
Raper,9. The Tragedy of Lynching, 22.
Pfeifer,10. Rough Justice, 60.
Pfeifer,11. Rough Justice, 60.
Pfeifer,12. Rough Justice, 61.
Wells, “Mob Murder in a Christian Nation,” http://www.infoplease.com/t/13.
hist/mob-murder/ (accessed July 20, 2006).
Raper,14. The Tragedy of Lynching, 22.
Raper,15. The Tragedy of Lynching, 22.
Wells,16. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 78.
For additional information on characterizations of blacks during three1.
distinct periods in American history see Winthrop D. Jordan, The White
Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (London:
Oxford University Press, 1974); Jerrold M. Packard, American Nightmare:
The History of Jim Crow (New York: St. Martin’s, 2002); Robin D. G.
Kelley and Earl Lewis, To Make Our World Anew: A History of African
Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Robert Haws, ed.,
The Age of Segregation: Race Relations in the South, 1890–1945 (Jackson,
MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1978).
Wells, “Lynch Law,” 25.2.
Wells, “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynchings,” 45. At some point atten-3.
tion should be given to Wells’s use of biblical imagery and analogy as moral
indicators of American culture.
In her autobiography, Wells noted that “[t]he Chicago4. Daily Inter-Ocean was
published from 1872 to 1914. In 1914 it merged with the Record Herald, which
later became the Herald-Examiner. It is the forerunner of Chicago Today (until
recently, the Chicago American).” Wells also indicated that the Inter-Ocean
was the “only paper in America which had persistently denounced lynching.”
In addition, Wells wrote for the Inter-Ocean “for the whole six months of my
stay in England in 1894. In that way I became the first, and so far as I know,
the only one of my group who was a regular paid correspondent of a daily
paper in the United States.” Wells, Crusade for Justice, 125 and 127.
Wells, “Lynch Law,” 39.5.
A Kansas City newspaper owned by C. H. J. Taylor. McMurry indicates6.
that Taylor “appears to have believed he should have become the fore-
most antilynching advocate,” which may explain why the aforementioned
editorial was printed without a rebuttal response. McMurry, To Keep the
Waters Troubled, 167. Wells confided in Douglass about her concern that
black-owned newspapers would print a demeaning and terrifying editorial
about her without offering a counterdefense. She stated that “this is only
one of many and the very worst of similar attacks he has made on me. Can
you not do something to aid and defend me?” Ida B. Wells to Frederick
Douglass, December 20, 1893, The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library
of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/douglass_corresp_index.pdf
(accessed May 3, 2007).
Ida B. Wells to Frederick Douglass, December 20, 1893, The Frederick7.
Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/
douglass_corresp_index.pdf (accessed May 3, 2007).
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 341.8.
Wells,9. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 70.
Wells,10. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 70.
Wells,11. Crusade for Justice, 3–5.
Duster, “Introduction,”12. Crusade for Justice, xxx.
Wells,13. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 53.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 334.14.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 333.15.
The official website of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME)16.
acknowledges that it
has a unique and glorious history. It was unique in that it is the
first major religious denomination in the Western World that had
its origin over sociological and theological beliefs and differences. It
rejected the negative theological interpretations which rendered per-
sons of African descent second class citizens. Theirs was a theologi-
cal declaration that God is God all the time and for everybody. The
church was born in protest against slavery—against dehumanization
of African people, brought to the American continent as labor. The
Mission of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is to minister
to the spiritual, intellectual, physical, emotional, and environmental
needs of all people by spreading Christ’s liberating gospel through
word and deed. At every level of the Connection and in every local
church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church shall engage in
carrying out the Spirit of the original Free African Society, out of
which the AME Church evolved: that is, to seek out and save the
lost, and serve the needy. (http://www.ame-church.com/ [accessed
June 30, 2007]).
For additional information on Wells’s stance on faith and social action see
Townes, Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope and Eric Gerard Pearman,
“The Least of These: Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s Intraracial Critique of
African-American Clergy and Lay Leadership” (Ph.D. diss., Iliff School
of Theology and University of Denver, 2002).
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 334.17.
Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” 341.18.
Wells,19. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 154.
Wells,20. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 154. For information on
historical tensions between Native Americans and African Americans see
James F. Brooks, ed., Confounding the Color Line: The Indian-Black
Experience in North America (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press,
2002); Fay A. Yarbrough, “Power, Perception, and Interracial Sex: Former
Slaves Recall a Multiracial South,” Journal of Southern History 71, no. 3
(2005), http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5011371799 (accessed
June 30, 2007).
For additional information see Douglas D. Rose, ed.,21. The Emergence of
David Duke and the Politics of Race (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North
Carolina Press, 1992); Charles D. Hadley, “Louisiana: The Continuing
Saga of Race, Religion, and Rebellion,” ed. Robert P. Steed, Laurence W.
Moreland, and Tod A. Baker, The 1992 Presidential Election in the South:
Current Patterns of Southern Party and Electoral Politics (Westport, CT:
Praeger, 1994), 51–65.
Fourteen Just Act
Audre Lorde,1. Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches (Freedom, CA: Crossing,
Dray,2. At the Hands of Persons Unknown, iii. One of the “last publicly
acknowledged lynching in the nation took place in Mobile, Alabama, in
1981, when the Ku Klux Klan beat and hanged a teenager.” Apel, Imagery of
Lynching, 15. A CNN Special Investigative Unit report on “The Noose: An
American Nightmare” that originally aired on November 1, 2007 confirmed
that for some whites the “noose” is viewed as a symbol of justice to punish
black males accused of sexually assaulting white women. While this news fea-
ture did not reference the use of nooses in military incidents that violated the
rules of engagement in combat, the special report did point out the urgency to
communicate the historical reality of this symbol.
Kelly Brown Douglas,3. Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist
Perspective (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 49.
When it appeared that black women would be excluded from efforts to par-4.
ticipate in the political process, Wells organized, along with friends, the Alpha
Suffrage club. See Wells, Crusade for Justice, 225–232; 345–353 for informa-
tion on Wells’s involvement in the women’s suffrage movement. Chapter 8
FN3 references information on Wells’s response to segregated practices on
public carriers. Her reaction to preferential hiring practices in the Memphis
Public School System is mentioned briefly in her autobiography. See Wells,
Crusade for Justice, 53.
Wells introduced the idea of the women’s club movement as a vehicle for5.
African-American women to effect change. “The idea found favorable
response and thus the first civic club among Negro women, the Women’s Era
Club, was organized in Boston, Massachusetts, with Mrs. Josephine St. Pierre
Ruffin as president.” Wells went on to “organize other clubs in New England,
and in Chicago she organized the first civic club among Chicago’s Negro
women.” Duster, “Introduction,” Crusade for Justice, xix; Wells, Crusade
for Justice, 81. Although a founding member of the NAACP, Wells’s presence
in this group was not without challenge. Initially, her name was excluded
from the list of individuals elected to serve during the nascent period of this
organization. It was soon discovered that W. E. B. Du Bois had deleted her
name and assumed that her views would be represented by Mrs. Wooley of
the Douglas Center. Du Bois “took the liberty of substituting the name of Dr.
Charles E. Bentley for hers, Dr. Bentley to represent the Niagara Movement.”
Wells, Crusade for Justice, 325. Wells took the position that Du Bois had
made the change without consulting others and “was opposed to making
any change.” Fortunately, several individuals recognized that Wells would
bring value to the organization and her name was reinstated. For additional
information on Wells’s involvement with the NAACP see Wells, Crusade for
See Brundage,6. Lynching in the New South; Clarke, The Lineaments of
Wrath; and Patterson, Rituals of Blood for additional information about vari-
ous types of mobs and the role of the spectator crowd at a lynching event.
Wells,7. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 74.
Alice Walker,8. The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult, a Meditation
on Life, Spirit, Art, and the Making of the Film The Color Purple Ten Years
Later (New York: Scribner, 1996), 50.
Wells,9. Crusade for Justice, 154–155.
Ida B. Wells, “Exiled,”10. New York Age, June 25, 1892. Wells revised this
editorial, which was subsequently published as Southern Horrors.
Wells,11. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 53.
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “The Black Church: A Gender Perspective,”12.
ed. Cornel West and Eddie S. Glaude Jr., African American Religious Thought
(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 189. Higginbotham is the
Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African-American
Studies at Harvard University.
Wells,13. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 139.
Wells,14. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 78.
Wells,15. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 50.
Wells,16. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 50.
For an account of a lynching after 1910, see Laura Wexler,17. Fire in a Canebrake:
The Last Mass Lynching in America (New York: Scribner, 2003).
While all human systems are inherently flawed, Wells’s critique of lynching,18.
its cause and effect, is particularly helpful in pointing out disparities in pros-
ecutorial conduct and sentencing guidelines. Her contribution to the ethical
discourse is apparent when analyzing rape convictions. Take, e.g., Darryl
Hunt whose rape conviction was recently overturned. HBO’s
award-winning documentary investigates a brutal rape/murder case
and a wrongly convicted man, Darryl Hunt, imprisoned nearly 20
years for a crime he did not commit. At once a social justice story,
a decades-long courtroom drama, and a personally driven narrative,
the film follows this capital case from 1984 through 2004 through
exclusive footage from two decades, the film frames the judicial and
emotional response to a chilling crime—and the implications that
reverberated from Hunt’s conviction—against a backdrop of class and
racial bias in the South and in the American criminal justice system.
(HBO Documentary Films, “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” http://www.
hbo.com/docs/programs/darrylhunt/ [accessed July 15, 2007])
Wells,19. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 50.
Wells,20. Southern Horrors and Other Writings, 50.
The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, publishes21.
a yearly map that tracks all active hate groups in the United States. See
Southern Poverty Law Center, “Intelligence Report,” http://www.splcenter.
org/intel/intelreport/intrep.jsp (accessed July 15, 2007); Jewish Virtual
Library, “Hate Groups in America,” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/
jsource/anti-semitism/hate.html (accessed July 15, 2007).
Books and Anti-Lynching Pamphlets by Ida B. Wells
Wells, Ida. B. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, edited by
Alfreda M. Duster. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970.
———. A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching
in the United States, 1892–1893–1894. In Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-
Barnett, compiled with an Introduction by Trudier Harris, 138–252. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
———. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. In Selected Works
of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, compiled with an Introduction by Trudier Harris,
14–45. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
———. The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells: An Intimate Portrait of the Activist
as a Young Woman, edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis with a Foreword by
Mary Helen Washington and Afterword by Dorothy Sterling. Boston, MA:
———. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Antilynching Campaign of
Ida B. Wells, 1892–1900, edited by Jacqueline Jones Royster. Boston, MA:
Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Lynch Law in Georgia. Chicago, IL: Chicago Colored
Citizens, 1899. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query (accessed October 15,
———. Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to the Death.
In Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, compiled with an Introduction by
Trudier Harris, 253–322. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
———. On Lynchings, with an Introduction by Patricia Hill Collins. Amherst,
NY: Humanity, 2002.
Articles and Speeches by Ida B. Wells
Wells, Ida. B. “Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” Ida B. Wells Papers [Box 8, Folder 8],
Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
———. “Lynch Law.” Ida B. Wells Papers [Box 10, Folder 5], Special Collections
Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
Wells, Ida. B. “Mob Murder in a Christian Nation.” http://www.infoplease.
com/t/hist/mob-murder/ (accessed July 20, 2006).
———. “The Reign of Mob Law: Iola’s Opinion of Doings in the Southern Field.”
Ida B. Wells Papers [Box 8, Folder 8], Special Collections Research Center,
University of Chicago Library.
Wells-Barnett, Ida B. “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynchings.” Ida B. Wells
Papers [Box 8, Folder 8], Special Collections Research Center, University of
Wells, Ida B. to Frederick Douglass, December 20, 1893. Transcript in the hand
of Ida B. Wells. The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress,
Manuscript Division. http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/douglass_corresp_
index.pdf (accessed May 3, 2007).
Wells, Ida B. to Frederick Douglass, March 13, 1894. Transcript in the hand
of Ida B. Wells. The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress,
Manuscript Division. http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/douglass_corresp_index.
pdf (accessed May 3, 2007).
Wells, Ida B. to Frederick Douglass, April 6, 1894. Transcript in the hand of
Ida B. Wells. The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress,
Manuscript Division. http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/douglass_corresp_index.
pdf (accessed May 3, 2007).
Wells, Ida B. to Frederick Douglass, May 6, 1894. Transcript in the hand of
Ida B. Wells. The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress,
Manuscript Division. http://www.loc.gov/rr/mss/text/douglass_corresp_index.
pdf (accessed May 3, 2007).
Wells, Ida B. to Frederick Douglass, May 10, 1894. Transcript in the hand of
Ida B. Wells. Ida B. Wells Papers [Box 10, Folder 6], Special Collections
Research Center, University of Chicago Library. The Frederick Douglass
Papers at the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. http://www.loc.gov/
rr/mss/text/douglass_corresp_index.pdf (accessed May 3, 2007).
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Adams, Rev. Moses, 32
African American feminism, 155n–156n
African American women, 8, 10, 11,
club movement, 169n
African Americans, 6, 10, 12, 20, 22,
27, 28, 30, 33, 35, 41, 42, 46,
52, 58, 59, 66, 68, 76, 79, 80,
82, 85, 92, 95, 99, 101, 103,
104, 114, 117, 119, 121, 122,
125, 127, 130
colleges and universities, 31
educational initiatives, 146n
Aked, Rev. C. F., 98, 162–163n, 185n
Clanton, 1891 lynching, 81
Montgomery, 99, 170n
Allen, Richard, 36, 147n
American Systemic (obsession with)
Violence, 15, 107, 130, 108,
110, 114, 118, 120
Anti-lynching legislation, 80,
Apel, Dora, 76, 81, 83, 158n
Imagery of Lynching: Black Men,
White Women, and the Mob,
Association of Southern Women
for the Prevention of
Southern Women Look at Lynching,
Ayers, Edward L, 69–70
stance on lynching, 116
Tremont Temple Baptist Church,
Barnett, Ferdinand L., 135n
Barrett, Mr. 91–93
Beck, E. M., 42, 60, 76, 80, 82,
83–85, 92, 95
Benson, Christopher, 158n
Death of Innocence, 158n
Bettersworth, John K., 141n
Confederate Mississippi: The
People And Policies of a
Cotton State in Wartime, 141n
Bevans, Stephen B., 20
Models of Contextual
Black (racial) invisibility, 101, 163n
Blassingame, John W., 24, 25
Slave Community: Plantation
Life In the Antebellum
South, The, 140n
Bolling, Mr., 23, 29
Boston, Massachusetts, 150n, 156n
Boston Monday Lectureship,
Bowser, Mr., 150n
Brown v. Board of Education, 105
Brundage, W. Fitzhugh, 16, 42–43,
55, 57, 64, 70, 71, 81, 149n,
Lynching in the New South, 153n
Under Sentence of Death: Lynching
In the South, 153n
Cannon, Katie Geneva, 10, 76, 79, 85,
Black Womanist Ethics, 76
Katie’s Canon: Womanism and
the Soul of the Black
Catholic Theological Union, 20
Charles, Robert, 69–70, 72–74
Chicago, Illinois, 68
Chicago World’s Fair, 1893, 52
Childress, James, 24
Christian ethic of resistance, 3, 12, 13,
17, 99, 109, 110–112, 116,
117–118, 125, 127, 128
Jesus Christ as model, 116
Christian social ethic, 11
behavior regarding justice, 11
belief about love, 11
lynching and, 117, 129
Chronicle of Higher Education, 16
Civil rights, 7, 11, 84, 109
Civil Rights Bill, 157
Civil rights case, 157n
Civil rights movement, 1960s, 12
Sweet Honey in the Rock, 15
workers/activists, 15, 66, 88, 116
Civil War, 20, 21–22, 23, 24, 27, 31,
136n, 140n–141n, 144n
Clanton, Alabama, 81
Clarke, James W., 54, 55, 56, 77, 81
The Lineaments of Wrath,
Colleges and Universities, 31
Columbia University, 127
Fisk University, 37
Rust College, 31, 32, 33 107
Santa Clara University, 101
Shaw University, 31
Southern Baptist Theological
Seminary of Louisville, 43
University of Pennsylvania, 82
Wellesley College, 42
Wilberforce University, 66, 145n
Yale University, 42, 97
Collier-Thomas, Betty, 142n
Collins, Patricia Hill, 89
Compelled obedience, 103–104
Congress, 29, 144n
Constitution, The, 52, 63, 65, 94, 116,
Crawford., Floyd, 94, 161n–162n
American, 54, 134, 167n
dominant/majority, 16, 61, 74, 89,
101, 108, 112, 159n
and justice, 19
southern, 74, 84, 129
and theology, 20
white supremacy, 28, 30
Culture of fear/terror, 6, 12, 43, 104
Culture of lynching, 9, 127
Cutler, James Elbert, 8, 9, 42, 47, 73,
74, 97, 110, 162n
Lynch Law: An Investigation into the
History of Lynching in the
United States, 8, 42
Davis, Angela Y, 88, 92, 95
Declaration of Independence, 6
June, 1903 lynching, 117
Detriments of privilege, 163n–164n
Disenfranchisement, 1877, 144n
Douglas, Kelly Brown, 54, 101,
Sexuality and the Black
Church: A Womanist
What’s Faith Got to Do with It?:
Douglass, Frederick, 8, 52–54,
98, 110, 120, 129, 156n,
Life and Times of Frederick
My Bondage and My Freedom, 151n
Narrative of the Life of
Frederick Douglass, an
American Slave, Written by
Dray, Philip, 16, 42, 104, 139n, 151n,
At the Hands of Persons Unknown,
Du Bois, W. E. B., 27, 169n
Black Reconstruction in America,
Duke, David, 125
Duke, Jesse C., 53
Dukes, J. C., 99
Dunbar, Paul Laurence, 101
“We Wear the Mask”, 101
Duster, Alfreda M. Barnett, 29, 94, 122
Dyson, Michael Eric, 82–83, 89–90, 159n
Economics of racism, 6, 76–77, 129, 156n
black gold, 77
foster care system, 77
prison industrial complex, 77
of former slaves, 28, 30–33, 47–48,
122, 144n, 146n
Emancipation, 5, 27, 65, 81, 107
Emancipation Proclamation, 21, 150n
England, 52, 98, 131, 156n
Federal Bureau of Investigation, 6
Civil Rights Division, 6
Federal Writers’ Project of the Works
Fifteenth Amendment, 65, 159n
Fitzgerald, Bishop Oscar B., 58
Foner, Eric, 29, 136n, 143n, 144n
Fortune, T. Thomas, 150n, 156n
Fourteenth Amendment, 29, 85,
Franklin, John Hope, 8, 27, 28, 29, 81,
reconstruction, 28, 29, 30, 143n,
family dynamics, 88–89
slavery, 81, 141n
Freedmen’s Aid Society of the Methodist
Episcopal Church, 31–32
schools founded by, 145n
Freedmen’s Bureau, 54n
Georgia, 31, 42, 149n
1899 lynching spree, 158n
Gilmore, Glenda, 83, 89, 155n
Gender & Jim Crow: Women
and the Politics of White
Supremacy in North Carolina,
Grant, Jacqueline, 10
Grant, Ulysses S., 21, 141n–142n, 144n
Great Britain, 98
Guy-Sheftall, Beverly, 155n–156n
Words of Fire: An Anthology of
Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins, 148n
Hate crimes, 6, 82, 125
Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, 132
Hine, Darlene Clark, 83
Historically Black Colleges and
Universities, 31, 145n
Hobgood, Mary Elizabeth,
Dismantling Privilege: An Ethics of
Holly Springs, Mississippi, 6, 21–23, 28,
32, 35–36, 107, 141n, 142n,
Hunt, Darryl, 170n
Hurricane Katrina, 15, 146n
Hutchins, Fred, 94
Hutton, Mary Magdelene Boone, 138n
Springfield lynching, 80, 158n
state bill against mob violence, 80
Impey, Catherine, 98, 150n, 162n
Editor, Anti-Caste, 98
Injustice, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 23, 39,
45, 47, 54, 64, 72, 77, 91, 103,
104, 105, 127, 132, 133
Christian ethic of resistance to, 3
Jim Crow, 119
Johannsen, Robert W., 67
Johnson, Alison P. Gise, 142n
Johnson, Lyndon B., 144n
Jones, Absalom, 36, 147n
107, 109, 113, 115, 116, 117,
120, 122, 129, 131, 132, 133,
136, 149n, 151n, 155n, 156n,
158n, 161n, 169n
reason to study, 127
self defense, 68
silence of the church, 129–130
“southern horrors”, 6, 50, 81,
souvenir collection, 129
statistics, 5, 6, 8–9, 10, 15, 137n
1892, 50–52, 125
substitution of innocent victim, 76
three eras of, 158n
trivialization of, 156n–157n
twenty-first century manifestations,
10, 12, 96, 106, 111, 116, 119,
124, 125, 127, 128, 133, 134,
U.S. epoch, 1890–1919, 151n
women victims, 71, 151n
Manifest Destiny, 67
Markovitz, Jonathan, 2, 64
Legacies of Lynching: Racial
Violence and Memory, 135n
Marshall County, Mississippi, 141n
Mass Mob, 71, 155n
Mayo, Isabelle Fyvie, 150n
McDonald, Rev. A. C., 32
McDowell, Calvin, 7, 92, 94, 102,
McIntosh, Peggy, 83, 159n
McMillen, Sally G., 30
Memphis, Tennessee, 3, 7, 12, 13, 35,
37, 38, 56, 57, 59, 60, 87, 91, 92,
94, 95, 99, 102–103, 104, 113,
114, 120,122, 123, 130, 135,
136n, 141n, 146n, 147n, 148n,
1866 race riot, 136n
1892 lynching, 87, 91–92, 95, 99,
104, 113, 162n
A. M. E.’s Committee on the State of
the Country, 67
African Methodist Episcopal Church,
33, 66, 123, 145n, 147n, 168n
African Methodist Episcopal Zion
Asbury Methodist Episcopal
Black Methodist Churches, 33
Colleges and Universities, 32
Freedmen’s Bureau, 144n
Methodist Church South, 58
Methodist Episcopal Church, 31,
Metropolitan A. M. E. Church,
Washington, D.C., 110
missionaries, 30, 31, 66, 107
Northern Methodist Church, 65
schools, 32, 145n
stance on lynching, 116
Miller, C. J., 81
Ministerial Alliance of Kansas City, 75
Mississippi, 20, 21–24, 49, 140n–141n,
27–29, 140n–141n, 143n, 144n,
Duck Hill, 151n
Holly Springs, 6, 21, 22, 28, 32,
35–36, 107, 141n, 142n
Marshall County, 141n
Tippah County, 22, 28, 35
Water Valley, 21
Mobley, Mamie Till, 158n
Death of Innocence, 158n
Moderate reason, 105–106
Morrow, Ralph S., 31
Moss, Betty, 7
Moss, Maurine, 7
Moss, Thomas, 7, 57, 59, 92, 94, 95, 99,
102, 107, 114, 123, 130
Mossell, Gertrude, 150n
“Myth of Womanhood”, 88, 129
National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People
National Public Radio, 82
National Security, 96
Native Americans, derogatory references
by Wells, 124, 168n
Neal, Claude, 151n
Negro Press Association, 150n
Nerone, John, 53, 88
Violence Against the Press: Policing
the Public Sphere in U. S.
New York, 52, 120, 122
New York City, 127
Afro-American Press, 150n
American Citizen, 120
Free Speech, 7, 60, 91, 94, 113, 114
Gate City Press, 150n
Montgomery Herald, 99
New York Age, 123, 150n, 156n
North Star, The, 52
Newspapers, white, 47
Chicago Inter Ocean, 45, 120
Chicago Today, 167n
Chicago Tribune, 73, 76, 97, 137n,
Christian Advocate, 58
Kansas City Times, 75
Montgomery Herald, 53
New Orleans Times-Democrat, 72, 73
New Orleans Times Picayune, 72,
Niebuhr, Reinhold, 103, 104, 105, 164n
acts of resistance, 106
Love and Justice, 164n
Moral Man and Immoral Society, 164n
“The Negro Issue in America”, 103
Olson, Lynn, 89
O’Sullivan, John Lewis, 67
Patterson, Orlando, 42
Pemberton, General John C., 21, 141n
Penn, I. Garland, 150n
People’s Grocery, 91, 93
Peterson, Jerome B., 150n
Pfeifer, Michael J., 42, 117
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 36, 98,
Post 9/11 society, 96
Presbyterians, 31, 117
Press, Power of, 60, 106, 114, 121
Prison industrial complex, 77, 143n
convict lease system, 119
Racial Identity, 83
Racism, 76, 82–85, 115, 159n
economics of, 6, 77, 92, 129. 156n
gender and, 89
provocation to rape, 88
strategies to resist
integrity, beauty and aesthetic
fortitude (music & visual arts),
Ransom, Bishop Reverdy Cassius,
Black on black, 56
Black on white, 55, 57, 59, 70, 87, 88
justification for lynching, 89, 99, 102
White on black, 55–56, 58–59, 83,
87, 88, 152n, 160n
Rape, false charge of, 56, 117, 122,
“The New Cry”, 57
versus consentual sexual relationship,
Raper, Arthur, 5, 89, 116, 117
Reconstruction, Federal, 20, 28, 29–31,
54, 110, 119, 143n, 119
Reconstruction, State, 143n
black codes, 27, 28, 143n, 144n
Methodist schools, 145n
Mississippi Democrats, 144n
publication, Living Way, 38
Re-orientation, 12, 101, 103, 109,
111–112, 125, 127
an act of resistance, 106–108
Rice, Anne P., 57
Witnessing Lynching: American
Writers Respond, 57
Roberts, Dorothy, 156n
Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child
Ruffin, Josephine St. Pierre, 150n, 169n
Rust College, 31, 32, 33, 107
Rust, Rev. Richard S., 32, 145n
Scotland, 52, 98, 131, 162n
Separate but equal doctrine, 159n
Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, 159n
Signification, 110, 165n
Simmons, William J., 150n
Slave Narratives: A Folk History of
Slavery in the United States
from Interviews with Former
Slavery, 6, 13, 20, 21, 22–25, 27, 28,
52, 64, 68, 72, 98, 106, 108,
109, 139–140n, 142n, 143n,
family dynamics, 24–25
“peculiar institution”, 6, 25
racial hierarchy, 6
South Carolina, 58, 153n
“Southern horrors”, 6, 49, 81, 91, 107,
122, 123, 129, 132, 133, 134, 158n
Southern Poverty Law Center, 170n
Stanfield II, John H., 112
Editor, Race and Ethnicity in
Research Methods, 112
Steelwater, Eliza, 77
The Hangman’s Knot: Lynching,
Legal Execution, and America’s
Struggle with the Death
Stewart, Henry, 7, 92, 94, 102, 107, 114
Stowell, Daniel W., 31
Strategies to counter injustice
boycott, migrate, write, 3, 7, 9, 12,
13, 17, 61, 93–95, 99, 106, 111,
113–115, 125, 131, 165n
language, power of, 7, 12, 47, 60, 68,
75, 110, 118, 121–122, 124, 131
reformulation for twenty-first
relevance in twenty-first century,
Supreme Court, 6, 105, 157n, 159n
Sweet Honey in the Rock, 15
Taylor, Mark Lewis, 156n
The Executed Good: The Way of the
Cross in Lockdown
Tennessee, 30, 31, 92, 153n
Texas Beef Group v. Oprah
Till, Emmett, 158n
Tillman, Governor Benjamin, 58
Thompson, Kathleen, 83, 152n
Thompson, Mildred, 11
Thornton, Matthew, 94
Tolnay, Stewart E., 42, 60, 76, 80, 82,
83–85, 92, 95, 149n, 153n
Townes, Emilie Maureen, 10, 11, 168n
“Social and Moral Perspectives of Ida
B. Wells-Barnett as Resources for
a Contemporary Afro-Feminist
Christian Social Ethic”, 11
Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope, 11
Trans-Atlantic crossing, 107, 115
Tuskegee Institute, 125, 151n
Tuttle, Kate, 5
Underground Railroad, 52
United States, 3, 43, 98
racial relations, 46, 47, 52, 61, 63, 65,
67, 68, 74, 77, 81, 83, 84, 90, 98,
101, 103, 105, 106, 110, 115,
119, 120, 121, 127, 128, 129,
150n, 157n, 159n
United States Government, 52, 119–120
United States Military Academy at West
Vance Street Christian Church, 37
Vigilante justice/violence, 3, 7, 9, 10, 51,
58, 71, 97, 113, 129, 130, 149n
Virginia, 23, 42, 149n
Voting Rights Act of 1964, 144n
Voting rights denied, 65
Walker, Alice, 79, 129, 137n
Color Purple, The, 129
Same River Twice: Honoring the
Difficult, The, 129
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens:
Womanist Prose, 137n
Wales, 98, 131
Wallace, Michele, 85–86
Wells, Elizabeth Warrenton, 21, 23–24,
28, 30–31, 33, 36, 38, 140n
Wells, Ida B.
attendance at Fisk University,
birth, 6, 21
“color line justice”, 160n
exile, 123, 130, 156n
founding member of NAACP, 169n
head of household, 37
higher education, 37
“How Enfranchisement Stops
journalistic skill, 53, 76, 156n
life-altering event, 1892 Memphis, 103
lynch statistics, 6, 151n
“Lynch Law in All Its Phases”, 8, 95,
lynching, 102–103, 107
“The Malicious and Untruthful
White Press”, 59
“Mob Murder in a Christian
Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert
Charles and His Fight to the
parents, 21, 22–24, 28–31, 33,
paternal grandmother, 22–24,
pen name, 38, 156n
physical threats against, 94,
public school teacher, 37, 148n
Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and
Alleged Causes of Lynchings in
the United States, 1892–1893–
1894, 5–6, 63, 151n
“Reign of Mob Law, The”, 79
Southern Horrors and Other
Writings, 122, 130, 151n
strategies to counter injustice boycott,
migrate, write, 3, 7, 9, 12, 13,
17, 61, 93–95, 99, 106, 111,
113–115, 125, 131, 165n
language, power of, 7, 12, 47,
60, 68, 75, 110, 118, 121–122,
reformulation for twenty-first
relevance in twenty-first century,
validation of journalistic facts, 9, 76
women’s club movement, 169n
Crusade for Justice, 19, 122
Wells, Sr., James, 21, 22–24, 28–31, 33,
35–36, 38, 140n
Wells, Mr. 22–24
Wells, Peggy, 22–24, 28, 142n
Wells, Polly, 22–24
Welter, Barbara, 55
“The Cult of True Womanhood:
1820–1860”, 55, 152n
West, Cornel, 64, 101
“The Prophetic Tradition in
White culture, 101–102
White, George, 117
White on white oppression, 95
White supremacy, 28, 30, 42, 64,
83–84, 93, 101, 133
Wiegman, Robyn, 88
“The Anatomy of a Lynching”, 88
Williams, Delores, 10
“The White Side of a Black
Womanist, 10, 79, 137n, 138n
Womanist Christian social ethic, 11
Womanist ethics, 10, 16, 75, 139n
Wood, Rev. Norman B., 43, 151n
Woodward, C. Vann, 27
Wynne, Ben, 22, 27–28, 140n–141n, 143n
Mississippi’s Civil War: A Narrative
Yellow fever epidemic
1878, 20, 35, 146n, 147n
Zorn, Jeff, 101