I am struck by how incredible a woman Ida B. Wells was. I may be wrong, but I believe that a woman business owner would have been rare in her time, and a black woman business owner rarer still. She grew a newspaper where others said that it could not be done. She built it into a paying, viable business. All in a place where she felt safe. Despite the reports of lynching throughout the South, a lynching had never happened in Memphis, and it seemed that one never could.
Until one did.
And that one incident changed Memphis from a place where lynchings did not happen to a place where they did. It was as if a volcano had erupted that was not only called dormant, but was never even named a volcano. Suddenly, the black citizens had to wonder not if, but when, it might erupt again.
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are a vital part of American society. And yet, Wells' newspaper could not be said to enjoy those freedoms as an equal to the presses of whites. One simple paragraph, citing the number of lynchings in the last week and their "reasons" would have pricked at the whites, but she included a reference to the moral reputation of white women.
This brought the issue into a different realm. As long as women, in general, were not equal, were considered property of men, insults to them were a greater excuse for violence than insults to men. The white men now have a moral mission - they must protect the virtue of their women. And, indeed, that was the root of many lynchings, for the perceived assault of white women by black men, often misconstrued to stir the passions of the mob. Though other excuses for lynching may have been found in some cases, the protection of women was a powerful motive (or excuse) for them.
In this work, "Lynch Law in All its Phases," Wells lists lynchings over a ten year period. The numbers are horrible, almost a thousand people over less than ten years, and the details are horrifying. She provides the information in a matter-of-fact, journalist manner, but it is, by its very nature, sensational. And awful. Whether the men and women who were lynched were guilty of a crime is beside the point. None of them should have been killed by a mob with no regard to guilt or innocence. Not if all people are created equal.
Slavery was ended, and the Southern states began immediately to try and get it back, in form if not in law. "All their laws are shaped to this end, school laws, railroad carriage regulations, those governing labor liens on crops, every device is adopted to make slaves of free men and rob them of their wages" (201). The laws that restrict black people only emboldened the whites to disregard other laws and let the lynch mob become justice. If the blacks could be legally bound to a different set of standards, then what was to stop the mob from meting out a different justice to them outside the law?
Hypocrisy is a constant thread among these women rhetors. They find it everywhere they look, because injustice and hypocrisy are close companions. As long as mob rule is allowed, America can not avoid being the land of some free and the home of the hypocrite.