America’s Black History Month: If Ida B. Wells were alive today

By: Ryan Macasero February 04,2017 - 09:09 PM


Every February, the US celebrates Black History Month. While I’m not black, I grew up learning about leaders in the black community who fought for racial equality and justice there.

Long before I decided to pursue a career in journalism, one black leader whose story inspired me was Ida B. Wells.

Wells was born a year after the civil war began.

She was an investigative journalist, civil rights leader and educator in the post-Civil War era. Three of her friends were lynched in Tennessee, which catapulted her into covering the lynchings which had begun in the late 1800s.

During those times, it was dangerous to simply be black. Even more dangerous it was to be a black woman who asked questions and wrote stories for a living, but she did it anyway.

After writing a column for a black newspaper, outraged at the growing number of blacks being lynched in the south, the office was burned downed and destroyed and her life was threatened.

In her pamphlet Southern Horrors, Wells debunked the popular notion that black men were being hanged for acts of sexual violence.

True reasons for the lynchings varied from attempting to register to vote, for being too successful, for failing to be demure toward whites or just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lynchings were used as a tool to maintain status quo of economic dominance of white southerners over newly-freed black people.

In her next pamphlet The Red Record, Wells dug deeper into lynching post-emancipation and exposed that courts with all white judges and juries refused to indict any perpetrators for lynchings.

Wells wrote soon after black communities organized boycotts of white businesses in Memphis, “They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth.”

Wells’ coverage — along with the rise of black newspapers’ coverage of the lynchings — provided an important counter-perspective of the stories printed — or not printed — in the mainstream newspapers. One study of news coverage in Statesboro, Georgia, where hundreds of black southerners were lynched, said nearly all reports “accepted as true all the rumored details of guilt.”

After watching on TV President Trump attending an event recognizing Black History Month, I thought to myself, “What would Ida say if she were alive today?” I’m sure she would be bewildered at the thought of the existence of such terms like “alternative facts.” She would be horrified to know that black people, many of whom are unarmed, are still being killed by police officers. That even almost 100 years after her death, black people and other minorities still face high poverty rates, as well as high drop-out and unemployment rates across the US.

She would be shocked that racial violence is still happening, even after America’s first black president had finished two terms.

But even here in the Philippines, there is also much to learn from Wells.

While there are stories being published and aired daily of people being killed in the “War on Drugs,” many of those stories are told with the police reports and blotters being accepted as gospel truth.

While news moves faster today than it did in Ida’s time, the importance of thoroughness and relentlessness in covering stories where dozens of people are being killed on a daily basis remain.

From 1860 to 1930, another prominent black journalist named Charles Chesnutt reported that 4,743 people of color were lynched. At least 72% of them were black, while the others were either of Mexican, Chinese or Native American descent.

Here in the Philippines, latest estimates place the war on drugs death toll at 7,080 since it began last July. Of this number, 2,555 suspects were killed in legitimate police operations. Three thousand six hundred three victims were listed as cases of deaths under investigation, or in other words, they were killed by unknown assailants. And according to police, 922 of these investigations have already concluded. While some enterprising journalists have provided compelling in-depth narratives to the drug war beyond the police blotters, there are thousands more stories that have died along with the victims.

And while lynchings are rare today, the lynchings have gone virtual. More frequently, we are seeing that mobs on both ends on the political spectrum are willing to gang up on anyone expressing different opinions or viewpoints online.

In the United States, journalists — even members of the White House Press Corps — are now being shamed and discredited by no less the newly-elected president himself simply for trying to ask difficult questions.

This Black History Month, it is timely to remember the courageous life of Ida B. Wells and hope that she continue to inspire others — journalists and citizens alike — to never be afraid to seek and speak the truth.

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TAGS: 67-year-old American retiree, America, Black History Month, February, Journalism, Tennessee

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