Truth-Telling: Frances Willard and Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells and "Lynch-Law"

Southern Horrors

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In March of 1892, a white mob in Memphis, Tennessee lynched three black men--Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and William Stewart--following an altercation at their grocery store. Moss and his family were close friends of Ida B. Wells.

As she grappled with the murders, Wells began to investigate the circumstances surrounding other lynchings. Local newspapers often reported that mobs lynched black men because they had raped white women. But as Wells interviewed witnesses and victims' families, she found evidence that cast doubt on this explanation. Much more often, she found, the allegation of rape was only a pretext. Wells began to conceive of lynchings not as random expressions of mob hatred, but as a way for Southern whites to systematically use violence and fear to oppress black people.

After Wells reported on her findings in the Free Speech, the newspaper she co-owned, a white mob burned the newspaper's offices to the ground and threatened her life. Wells happened to be in New York at the time of the attack. She never returned to Memphis, instead embarking on an international career crusading against lynching.

In her pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch-Law in All Its Phases (1892), Wells presented some of the evidence she had collected to show that there was often no credible evidence of rape.

In her research, Wells found that fewer than a third of lynching victims had even been charged with rape. She also explained why the charge of rape was so damaging: it made potential allies of black people unwilling to defend them.

Photos of Southern Horrors are taken from New York Public Library digital collections (marked "free to use without restriction") -

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