The name of Ida Wells-Barnett is seldom ever evoked when people discuss modern civil rights activism in the United States, but she could be described as one of its earliest pioneers. She was a fierce advocate for women’s rights as well.
Born to slaves in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862, she was the oldest of 8 children. Her parents were eventually able to achieve their freedom and became actively involved in Republican politics. One must remember that more blacks were drawn during those days to the Republican Party, because it was the party of Abraham Lincoln, whom many revered because they credited him with emancipating them from slavery.
Tragedy struck when Ida’s parents and a brother died of yellow fever when she was 16-years-old. In order to keep her siblings from being separated, she got a teaching position at a local black school. She later moved to Memphis, Tennessee to teach.
It was in Memphis that an incident began her activism. She had bought a first-class railroad ticket, but was ordered to sit in the “black” section, which had no first-class area. After refusing and putting up a spirited fight when the conductor tried to force her to leave the “white” section, she was forcibly ejected. Like Rosa Parks, who came much later, she was not about to let what she felt were her personal rights be infringed upon. During those days, it was a very dangerous enterprise to disregard Jim Crow restrictions, but the determined Ida sued for her mistreatment and actually won in a lower court. Her victory, however, was short lived, because the decision was later reversed.
Ida also became involved in the suffragette movement of the day and again stood up for her rights by refusing to station herself in the back when the women marched in parades. She further enraged the racist power structure of that time by writing several passionate editorials in The Free Speech and Headlight, a black community newspaper of which she was co-owner and editor. She wrote about topics, such as segregation, violent acts against black people, lynching, poor schools and the responsibility of blacks to be more vocal about their rights. Ida was definitely not making some folks happy and she paid a price for her boldness. She lost her teaching job and was forced to leave Memphis for her own personal safety, as the powers-that-be at the time viewed her actions as being highly inflammatory. Her newspaper office was destroyed by an angry mob of white opponents.
None of this dampened Ida’s determination to fight against injustice and, after moving to Chicago, she continued to speak against the evils of lynching and wrote several influential pamphlets, which brought her a tremendous degree
of attention. She wed attorney Ferdinand Lee Barnett, himself the founder and editor of The Chicago Conservator, a black community newspaper.
Marriage and motherhood did not deter Ida from pursuing her passion for equal rights for both blacks and women. She was one of the founders of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and also started the nation’s first black suffrage club. She even ran for public office in the state legislature in 1930.
After a rich, full life in which she set the groundwork for what grew into the civil rights movement, Ida Wells-Barnett died on March 25, 1931, as fiery and militant as ever.