Ida B. Wells, This Awful Slaughter, 1909

Ida B. Wells

Journalist and Civil Rights Activist

Pioneering investigative journalist Ida B. Wells captivated a nation when she published a searing series of articles on the prevalence of mob violence and the lynching of black men in the United States. Born into slavery just before the end of the Civil War, Wells became a prominent writer and editor in Memphis, Tennessee, where she helped run a newspaper, the Free Speech. In the 1890s, after she penned an anti-lynching editorial in response to several high-profile murders, Wells’s paper was destroyed by outraged readers and she fled the South. In New York, she published an expanded exposé, the pamphlet ‘Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases’. ‘It is with no pleasure I have dipped my hands into the corruption here exposed,’ she wrote in the preface, ‘Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.’

In a speech delivered in 1909 in New York at the National Negro Conference – an early African-American empowerment group – Wells presented her findings based on archival research and dozens of interviews. In it, Wells recounted the statistics in precise detail, addressing a myth often used to justify lynchings in the South: fears of miscegenation and sexual violence against white women. ‘The lynching record for a quarter of a century merits the thoughtful study of the American people,’ she began. ‘It presents three salient facts: First, lynching is color-line murder. Second, crimes against women is the excuse, not the cause. Third, it is a national crime and requires a national remedy.’ Persistently using her own voice to amplify those of others, Wells helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, and remained a powerful advocate for African-Americans until her death in 1931.

This Awful Slaughter 1909

Why is mob murder permitted by a Christian nation? What is the cause of this awful slaughter? This question is answered almost daily—always the same shameless falsehood that “Negroes are lynched to protect womanhood.” Standing before a Chautauqua assemblage, John Temple Graves, at once champion of lynching and apologist for lynchers, said: “The mob stands today as the most potential bulwark between the women of the South and such a carnival of crime as would infuriate the world and precipitate the annihilation of the Negro race.” This is the never-varying answer of lynchers and their apologists. All know that it is untrue….

Is there a remedy, or will the nation confess that it cannot protect its protectors at home as well as abroad? Various remedies have been suggested to abolish the lynching infamy, but year after year, the butchery of men, women and children continues in spite of plea and protest.…

The only certain remedy is an appeal to law. Lawbreakers must be made to know that human life is sacred …

In a multitude of counsel there is wisdom. Upon the grave question presented by the slaughter of innocent men, women and children there should be an honest, courageous conference of patriotic, law-abiding citizens anxious to punish crime promptly, impartially and by due process of law, also to make life, liberty, and property secure against mob rule.

Time was when lynching appeared to be sectional, but now it is national—a blight upon our nation, mocking our laws and disgracing our Christianity. “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 sure.