Black women played a pivotal role in the struggle against racial violence. That battle, in turn, served as the catalyst for a black women’s movement dedicated to the eradication of racism and sexism alike.
Emergence of the Movement
Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931), a teacher-turned-journalist who was the co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech, launched the first phase of the antilynching movement in 1892, after a mob murdered three Memphis storeowners, one of whom was a close friend. She urged African Americans to fight back, with guns if necessary but mainly through economic pressure. Spurred by her scathing editorials, thousands of blacks migrated to Oklahoma, while those who stayed boycotted the newly opened streetcar line. Wells-Barnett began investigating other lynchings, and she soon discovered that few lynch victims were even accused of rape and that behind many rape charges lay interracial affairs. When she published an editorial arguing that “nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women,” a white mob destroyed her press and warned Wells-Barnett, who was in New York at the time, not to return to Memphis at the cost of her life.
Far from being silenced by this attack, Wells-Barnett transformed herself from a local leader into the architect of an international crusade. In exile, she wrote for the New York Age and published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), which offered an incisive analysis of the economic roots of lynching and linked violence against black men with the sexual exploitation of black women. Southern Horrors revealed that less than 30 percent of all lynchings involved the charge of rape and documented consensual sexual contact between black men and white women. Wells-Barnett argued that the image of the black rapist concealed lynching’s motives and masked violence against black women who were victims of sexual assault and lynching. She lectured throughout the North and West. In 1893 and 1894, she traveled to England, where she inspired the formation of the British Anti-Lynching Society and published A Red Record in 1895.
Although Wells-Barnett continued to advocate black militancy and self-help, she also hoped to turn white public opinion against the South. The lynching-for-rape myth, accepted by white people in both the North and South, depicted white men as the manly protectors of virtuous white women against uncivilized black men. Wells-Barnett’s genius lay in her ability to reverse this trope, casting white southern men as the lustful rapists of black women and the hypocritical murderers of innocent black men. In short, she subverted the equation between whiteness, manliness, and civilization, an equation that lay at the heart of Victorian notions of manhood and that helped to justify Western imperialism. By the end of her second British tour, Wells-Barnett had made lynching a cause célèbre among British reformers, and white American men found that their tolerance of racial violence had placed them in the uncomfortable position of unmanly savages in the eyes of the “civilized” world. Wells-Barnett’s skillful manipulation of dominant cultural themes did not stop lynching, but it did put mob violence on the American reform agenda.
Wells-Barnett relied from the outset on the support of a network of black women. A fund-raising event held in New York’s Lyric Hall—Wells-Barnett described it as “the greatest demonstration ever attempted by race women for one of their own number”—made possible the publication of Southern Horrors. When the president of the Missouri Press Association reacted to Wells-Barnett’s British tour by maligning the morality of black women, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842-1924), head of Boston’s New Era Club, used the incident as the occasion for founding the National Federation of Afro-American Women, which merged in 1896 with two other groups to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NACW followed Wells-Barnett’s lead and argued that the sexual exploitation of black women by white men and the lynching of African Americans were intricately linked.
By 1896 the lynching of African Americans for allegedly raping white women had become a weekly event in southern states. At the same time, whites intensified their assaults on the moral character of black womanhood and continued to ignore sexual and racial violence against black women. The NACW believed that negative stereotypes of African Americans, especially of women, served to justify rape and lynching. Thus, redeeming the image of black womanhood and dispelling the myth of the black rapist was for many black club women the first of many steps in eradicating sexual and racial violence. According to Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the NACW and an outspoken antilynching advocate, the duty of black club women was “setting a high moral standard and living up to it.” To counter the slander circulated by the white press, it was necessary for black women, who represented “the intelligence and virtue” of the race, to “avoid even the appearance of evil” in both their public and private lives. In short, Terrell, like many middle-class black women, espoused a “politics of respectability” that emphasized dissemblance, self-help, and intragroup reform. Racial uplift, argued many black club women, would chip away at white supremacy and guarantee African Americans equal protection under the law.
While the NACW focused much of its energy on morality, education, and temperance, the organization also created antilynching committees at the local and national levels and made a special point of publicizing lynching and violence against black women. Wells-Barnett continued her antilynching efforts, and in 1898 she and the Michigan Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs petitioned President William McKinley to appropriate forty thousand dollars for the widow of a lynched South Carolina postmaster. In 1899, Wells-Barnett published Lynch Law in Georgia, and Pauline E. Hopkins, a Boston journalist, published an antilynching novel titled Contending Forces. In 1904, at the NACW’s St. Louis biennial meeting, the organization passed its first resolution, calling on the federal government to take a firmer stance against lynching. By 1908, Mary Church Terrell was delivering antilynching lectures, calling for white support and demanding federal protection against rape and lynching.
Enter the NAACP
The founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 created another avenue for black club women to campaign against lynching. From its inception the NAACP worked to investigate and publish the facts about southern lynchings and provided a broader base for black women’s antilynching campaign. Wells-Barnett spoke at the founding meeting. In her speech, “Lynching: Our National Crime,” Wells-Barnett proposed a campaign for federal antilynching legislation and “a bureau for the investigation and publication of the details of every lynching.”
The war years sparked a new wave of mob violence in America and ushered in a radical phase of the antilynching movement. There were twenty-five race riots in 1919 and lynch mobs killed thirty-six blacks in 1917, sixty in 1918, and seventy-six in 1919. Of the sixty lynchings in 1918, the lynching of Mary Turner and her unborn child in Lowndes County, Georgia, evoked the most impassioned response from black clubwomen and the NAACP. Black women responded to the brutal lynching in a variety of ways. Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, one of the most prominent sculptors of the Harlem Renaissance, protested the lynching with her sculpture Mary Turner (A Silent Protest) in 1919. The painted plaster sculpture shows a woman, clutching her pregnant stomach, looking down into the faces of the mob. The playwright Angelina Grimké responded to the Turner lynching in a short story, “The Creaking”(1920), later retitled “Goldies.” The Northeastern Federation of Colored Women passed a resolution supporting the Dyer Bill at its July 1918 meeting and in 1919 sent a letter to President Woodrow Wilson protesting the lynching of African American men and women. The federation attacked the rape fantasy by pointing to lynchings and rape of black women. It insisted that Wilson, “as a student of American History,” could read “the story of assaults white men have made on colored women’s honors” by looking at the faces of the race. In 1919 the Federation of Colored Women Clubs of New Jersey and the Empire State Federation of Women’s Club passed antilynching resolutions, and the Northeastern Federation of Women’s Clubs developed antilynching departments that published pamphlets to increase the awareness of lynching as a national problem. The Black Baptist Women’s Convention also passed resolutions in 1918 and 1919, demanding congressional passage of antilynching legislation. In 1919 and 1920 the organization asked Baptist churches to dedicate the Sunday before Thanksgiving to fasting and praying for the end of mob violence.
In May 1919 the NAACP sponsored a national conference on lynching that drew more than twenty-five hundred men and women to Carnegie Hall to hear speeches by black and white leaders. The meeting resolved to develop support for federal antilynching legislation, organize state committees to create favorable public opinion, and carry on systematic fund-raising and advertising campaigns. In response to the conference, the president of the NACW and Spingarn Medal winner Mary B. Talbert (1866-1923) pledged black club women’s support. Talbert had worked with Congressman L. D. Dyer, sponsor of the Dyer Antilynching Bill when the NAACP was still reluctant to commit itself to a legislative strategy. As president of the NACW until 1920, Talbert mobilized black women’s networks behind the endeavor, and in July 1922, she formalized these efforts in a group called the Anti-Lynching Crusaders. Within three months after its founding, the group’s sixteen original members had expanded to nine hundred. Broader based than the NAACP, the Crusaders pledged to “unite one million women to suppress lynching.”
The Anti-Lynching Crusaders had an unpaid staff and a leadership made up of veterans of settlement houses, state federations of black women’s clubs, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Woman’s Committee on the Council of National Defense, and the NAACP. Based mainly in the Northeast, these women asked black state and local women’s groups to petition public officials, persuade ministers to deliver antilynching sermons, and hold “sacrifice weeks” in which women were urged to contribute a dollar apiece to the campaign. The Crusaders were also determined to win white women to the cause and to take their campaign into the South, a strategy that would have been unthinkable when Ida B. Wells-Barnett first embarked on her antilynching campaign.
The groundwork for this effort was laid by a network of southern black women educators and church leaders, who had begun building tenuous alliances with white women through the YWCA and the church more than a decade before. In 1919, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, president of Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, persuaded the white North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs to pass an antilynching resolution. A year later, her stirring address to the founding meeting of the Woman’s Committee of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) encouraged the group to attack the double standard that excused white sexual exploitation of black women while condemning to death black men accused of crossing the color line.
The Crusaders enjoyed some success in this attempt to secure white women’s moral and financial support. The National Council of Women, representing some 30 million women nationwide, endorsed the campaign, and some leaders of the CIC Woman’s Committee indicated their support, but the hoped-for outpouring of response from southern white women did not materialize until 1930, with the formation of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL).
It is a testament to the power of segregation that Jessie Daniel Ames, founder of the ASWPL, seems not to have known about or read the trenchant writings of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She may nevertheless have been influenced by Wells-Barnett’s ideas as they had filtered into reform discourse or were conveyed to her by the black women with whom she worked in the CIC. In any case, it was Wells-Barnett who first exposed white women’s complicity in the violence perpetuated in their name, and the repudiation of that role served as the chief rhetorical strategy of the ASWPL. Wells-Barnett attacked the assumptions that equated white men with civilization; the ASWPL, in turn, rejected the white woman’s role as the object of the black man’s desire and the excuse for the white man’s violence. Throughout the 1930s, black CIC women prodded the ASWPL to endorse federal antilynching legislation. Ames refused to do so, but state branches of the ASWPL, as well as its major constituent organization, the Woman’s Missionary Council of the Methodist Church, South, lined up behind the Anti-Lynching Crusaders’ legislative drive.
The women’s antilynching campaign did not succeed in pushing an antilynching bill through the U.S. Congress, but it did help to bring about a change in public opinion. By 1942, a Gallup poll indicated that an overwhelming majority of whites, in both the North and South, favored making lynching a federal crime. The campaign also served as a rallying point for a larger black women’s movement, whose initiative in building welfare institutions and defending black rights during the era of segregation historians have only begun fully to appreciate and explore.
An Anti-Lynching Letter from Ida B. Wells-Barnett
OFFICE OF ANTI-LYNCHING BUREAU
2939 PRINCETON AVE.
To the Members of the Anti-Lynching Bureau;—
The year of 1901 with its lynching record is a thing of the past. There were 135 human beings that met death at the hands of mobs during this year. Not only is the list larger than for four years past, but the barbarism of this lawlessness is on the increase. Six human beings were burned alive between January 1st 1901 and Jan. 1st 1902. More persons met death in this horrible manner the past twelve months than in three years before and in proportion as the number roasted alive increases, in the same proportion has there been an indifference manifested by the public. Time was when the country resounded with denunciation and the horror of burning a human being by so called Christian and civilized people. The newspapers were full of it. The last time a human being was made fuel for flames it was scarcely noticed in the papers editorially. And the chairman of your bureau finds it harder every year to get such matter printed. In other words, the need for agitation and publication of facts is greater than ever, while the avenues through which to make such publications have decreased.
Nowhere does this apathetic condition prevail to a greater extent than within the membership of the Anti-Lynching Bureau. When the bureau was first organized three years ago, it was thought that every man, woman, and child who had a drop of Negro blood in his veins and every person else who wanted to see mob law put down would gladly contribute 25 cents per year to this end. There were upward of 300 responses to the first appeal and less than 50 per cent renewed at the end of that year. The third year of the bureau’s existence is half over and although the chairman has determined to issue a periodical, there are absolutely no funds in the treasury to pay postage much less the printer.
Nevertheless my faith in the justice of our cause and the absolute need of this agitation leads me to again address those who have shown 25 cents worth of interest in the matter heretofore. I send with this circular a pamphlet which friends have helped to pay for. It was thought best to begin with what to us was the beginning of history for our race in the United States—the Reconstruction period. In view of the recent agitation in Congress and out anent the disfranchisement of the Negro and the causes alleged therefore it was thought best to throw some light on those times and give some unwritten history. This history is written by one who can say with Julius Caesar of the history he wrote: “All of which I saw and part of which I was.” He has given his time and money to aid the publication. Will not the members of the bureau bestir themselves to circulate this number and aid in the publication of others? We can only change public sentiment and enforce laws by educating the people, giving them facts. This you can do by 1st, Renewing your membership in the Anti-Lynching Bureau and securing others. 2nd, By paying for the copy sent you and purchasing others to distribute. 3rd, By paying for the copy of the Reconstruction “Review” to your Congressman together with a letter urging the cutting down of the representation in Congress of the states which have nullified the Constitution. It rests with you to say whether the Anti-Lynching Bureau shall be strengthened to do its work for the future.
Jan. 1st, 1902
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Chairman
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