Back Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases”

Ida B. Wells (1862–1931)
From American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton

Ida B. Wells (left), with the family of Thomas H. Moss: Maurine (Wells’s goddaughter), Betty, and Thomas, Jr. In “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” Wells details the events surrounding Moss’s lynching in Memphis. The photograph was taken in Indianapolis, where his wife and children had relocated after the murder. (University of Chicago Library)

In 1892, journalist and editor Ida B. Wells moved from Memphis to Brooklyn. Two months earlier, her friend, the successful businessman Thomas Moss, was lynched, and while she was on her way to New York to meet with fellow journalists, the offices and equipment of the Free Speech newspaper, which she co-owned and edited, were destroyed by a mob.

She had been compiling information about the rise of “lynch law” by scouring newspaper reports and other documents and by interviewing the families and neighbors of victims. Her articles and speeches revealed how mob violence was employed against Black people as a “lesson of subordination” and, in no small part, for economic reasons. “All their laws are shaped to this end,” she argued in one of her speeches, “school laws, railroad car regulations, those governing labor liens on crops,—every device is adopted to make slaves of free men and rob them of their wages.”

When she collected her research and arguments for the pamphlet Southern Horrors, Frederick Douglass provided a prefatory letter:

You give us what you know and testify from actual knowledge. You have dealt with the facts with cool, painstaking fidelity and left those naked and uncontradicted facts to speak for themselves.

Brave woman! you have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. 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 wherever your pamphlet shall be read.

For our Story of the Week selection, we present Wells’s powerful speech delivered 130 years ago, in February 1893, describing the terrifying mob violence that caused her to abandon forever her home in Memphis.

Read Ida B. Wells’s “Lynch Law in All Its Phases”

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