Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was an American journalist, educator and activist. She was born July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi just a few months before the Emancipation Proclamation, and both of her parents were slaves. Around the turn of the century, Wells became a key figure in the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements, and was also one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

But Ida B. Wells was perhaps best known for her crusade against lynching in America. Wells investigated and documented lynching on a huge scale, and was met with fierce opposition for doing so, culminating in her newspaper office in Memphis being destroyed by an angry white mob. Wells moved to Chicago, and spent the rest of her life there campaigning and giving speeches, until her death in 1931. Today she is remembered as one of the most transformative and inspiring figures in American history, and was honoured with a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 2020.

Here, we celebrate some of Ida B. Wells’ famous quotes, put them into context and analyse their meaning.

Ida B Wells

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Ida B. Wells Quotes and Meanings

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”


        Ida B. Wells

We begin with one of the most famous Ida B. Wells quotes, and the one that perhaps best represents her life and career. This quote was apparently used in the advertising material for her lectures, which focused on lynching, an act that was viewed quite trivially by white society at the time.


“It is with no pleasure I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed. 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.


        Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892)

This quote is from the preface of Wells’ 1892 pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Here Wells again speaks of this importance of shining a light in order to right wrongs, and reveals her role in it to be a duty she feels has been thrust upon her, rather than one she has chosen to pursue for her own gratification.


The miscegenation laws of the South only operate against the legitimate union of the races; they leave the white man free to seduce all the colored girls he can, but it is death to the colored man who yields to the force and advances of a similar attraction in white women. White men lynch the offending Afro-American, not because he is a despoiler of virtue, but because he succumbs to the smiles of white women.


        Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors (1892)

The miscegenation laws Wells refers to here prohibited interracial marriage and sexual relations in the United States. Wells speaks of the double-standard in the manner these laws were enforced, with a blind eye being turned to white men flouting them, but mass uproar and even lynching being considered a justified response to a black man doing the same.

Also interesting about this Wells quote is how it portrays white people as the sexual initiators in both sexes: white men “seduce” black women, while black men “yield” and “succumb” to white women, highlighting the lack of power black people held in 19th century America, not just legally but also in typical social interactions.

Though this quote is from 1892, anti-miscegenation laws were still in place in some American states as late as 1967.


“The lesson this teaches and which every Afro American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.


        Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors (1892)

Wells ends her 1892 pamphlet with this passage, which, as mentioned alongside the previous quote, depicts the white man as the aggressor. Wells writes that black readers should accept that the law will never favour or respect them unless they take it into their own hands, suggesting that the way to equality and respect may come through eliciting a feeling of fear in the white man, the same fear and risk the black man has been forced to swallow every day.

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“The matter came up for judicial investigation, but as might have been expected, the white people concluded it was unnecessary to wait the result of the investigation—that it was preferable to hang the accused first and try him afterward.”


        Ida B. Wells, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States (1895)

This quote refers to the death of five black people in 1892 Mississippi that were suspected of poisoning a water well. According to the passage, Benjamin Jackson was lynched by a mob before his innocence had even been considered. His wife and mother-in-law were, by complete lack of evidence, deemed innocent. However, these two women were hanged nonetheless, as were two other men, purely by association.

This quote paints a picture of the horrors faced by black people in the American South at that time, with white Christians not only making and enforcing the rules, but doing so without any due diligence, acting on emotion and prejudice rather than reason.

Wells goes on to suggest that in the wilds of Africa such an act of savagery would have caused an outcry, but in America it simply “passed by unnoticed, to be denied or condoned as the requirements of any future emergency might determine.”


“The entire system of the judiciary of this country is in the hands of white people. To this add the fact of the inherent prejudice against colored people, and it will be clearly seen that a white jury is certain to find a Negro prisoner guilty if there is the least evidence to warrant such a finding.


        Ida B. Wells, The Red Record (1895)

Wells again here speaks of the odds stacked against black people, going as far as calling it “certain” that, in the end, a black man would be found guilty of a crime one way or another. Wells follows this quote by describing the case of Meredith Lewis, a man in Louisiana who was found innocent of murder by white jury, but a few nights later was hanged by a mob anyway.

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“Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people”.


        Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law in America” speech, Chicago (1900)

This quote from a Wells speech in Chicago is interesting as it depicts lynch mobs not as groups of mindless, impulsive savages, but as collections of calculated, intelligent individuals who know exactly what they want to achieve, and have identified lynching as the means to do so.

Wells’ speech goes on to describe lynching as a common historical method to eliminate one’s enemies with the eventual goal of personal gain, be that social, financial or other. Recently, Wells says, the “unwritten law” of lynching had begun being utilised in the battle against the perceived threat of “negro domination”, with a grander intention to “intimidate, suppress, and nullify the negro’s right to vote.” But, as Wells continues, even after black people were denied the right to vote, lynchings still occurred and even grew in frequency.


“Our country should be placed speedily above the plane of confessing herself a failure at self-government. This cannot be until Americans of every section, of broadest patriotism and best and wisest citizenship, not only see the defect in our country’s armor but take the necessary steps to remedy it. Although lynchings have steadily increased in number and barbarity during the last twenty years, there has been no single effort put forth by the many moral and philanthropic forces of the country to put a stop to this wholesale slaughter. Indeed, the silence and seeming condonation grow more marked as the years go by.


        Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law in America” speech, Chicago (1900)

Wells ended her 1900 speech with this passage. In it, she appeals to the American population, targeting not those committing the atrocities, but everyone else. Wells, as she set out to do, had by now shone an almighty light on lynching in the United States, and now calls on all those who had heard her to finally stand up and right the wrong.

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“I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I have said.”


        Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1970)

This quote from Wells’ biography refers to a story from 1917, when Wells distributed buttons in both protest and memoriam of twelve black American soldiers who had “run amuck” while awaiting transportation in Houston and subsequently been hanged by their own countrymen. Wells was visited by secret service agents seeking to confiscate the buttons. Accusing Wells of treason, one of the agents told her: “the rest of your people do not agree with you.” This quote, perhaps best exemplifying her life as a whole, was Wells’ response.

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