As we celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day we must honor NAACP co-founder, journalist, women’s suffragist, and civil rights icon Ida B. Wells. Mrs. Wells dedicated her life to fighting injustice and led the campaign against lynching of African-American citizens within the United States in the late 1800’s. Wells empowered former slaves through education and the power of her pen to call attention to the Southern reign of violent terror many endured on a day to day basis. Wells exposed that those who were unjustly killed were often business leaders within the community, thus the economic motive was uncovered. During this time period, it was unheard of for an African-American woman to dare speak out against such atrocities, however Mrs. Wells was no ordinary woman.
A historic moment that changed Ida B. Wells’ life came in 1883 when she purchased a first-class ticket and boarded a Memphis train headed to Woodstock, Tennessee. When requested by a train conductor to move from the first-class ladies car to the Colored car, which was also a smoking car, Ida refused and was forcibly removed from the train. As a result, she hired an attorney and filed suit in 1884 against the Chesapeake, Ohio & Southwestern Railroad Company. Ida’s attorney won the case in circuit court arguing the company didn’t offer “separate but equal” accommodations for Blacks and Whites. Ida was awarded $500 in damages. This case took place before Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that established the “separate but equal” policy and legalized racial segregation, making Ida a pioneer in the fight for desegregation. This history was made more than 70 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus.
The women’s suffrage movement was also a pivotal moment where Mrs. Wells persisted against discrimination and fought for equal rights for women of Color. The names Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others, are highly circulated when discussing women’s rights. Within this battle for equality, Wells was vocal that all women, including African-American women, were due the civic right to vote. In 1913, she formed the first suffrage club for Black women in the state of Illinois, the Alpha Suffrage Club. Wells also participated in the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (a White women’s suffrage group) parade in Washington on March 3rd. This protest was timed to coincide with the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson as the nation’s 28th President. Characteristically, Wells refused to march at the back of the parade and demanded to march alongside the White delegates from her state. Her persistence marked the integration of the women’s suffrage movement.
Ida B. Wells initiated many firsts within the African-American community and did so with courage, tenacity, and an unquenchable desire to promote justice. We must recognize the sacrifices of our American civil rights icon to truly appreciate the civic advancement we all benefit from today. As we honor historic women during this Women’s History Month, we must never forget the sacrifices of Mrs. Wells. Atlanta Free Speech is honored to continue her legacy ensuring topics within the urban community are heard and African-Americans continue to have a voice.
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