Of Ida B. Wells, Respectability Politics and the Journey Ahead


Years ago, the courageous journalist, suffragist, and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells was born on this day. Educated at Fisk, Wells served as co-owner and editor of the Black newspaper, The Free Speech and Headlight. She used her platform to condemn state sanctioned violence, disfranchisement, educational inequality and challenged assumptions and definitions of manhood.

Although the outspoken activists died in 1931, her work and words continue to have value in today’s social and political context. Whether in St. Louis, Baltimore, South Carolina or Texas, African Americans continue to face extra judicial killings while those charged with maintaining peace and order face little to no recourse for their [illegal] actions.

As Wells began her anti-lynching movement, her newspaper office was destroyed by a white mob and threatened to kill her if she returned. So she did what many African Americans would eventually do after her – she packed up and went North. In Chicago she began writing for a Black run newspaper called the New York Age and continued to be a strong voice for equality, suffrage and the franchise.

I have always maintained that Wells’ critique of Black male leaders, particularly of Booker T. Washington deserved closer analysis. In her critique of certain race leaders’ approach to race relations rests a very sophisticated condemnation of structural and institutionalized racism.

In an essay entitled, “Booker T. Washington and his Critics” Wells argued against the notion of respectability politics. Her words should serve as a reminder of the long road ahead.

“Does someone ask a solution of the lynching evil? Mr. Washington says in substance: Give me money to educate the Negro and when he is taught how to work, he will not commit the crime for which lynching is done. Mr. Washington knows when he says this that lynching is not invoked to punish crime but color, and not even industrial education will change that.”

“Again he sets up the dogma that when the race becomes taxpayers, producers of something the white man wants, land-owners, business, etc., the Anglo-Saxon will forget all about color and respect that race’s manhood… It was not the servant or working class of Negroes, who know their places, with whom the white people objected to riding, but the educated, property-owning Negro who thought himself the white man’s equal.”

So regardless if you are a 17 year-old Black male armed with skittles and iced-tea or a 28-year old member of a prominent Sorority headed to a dream job at your alma mater, respectability politics will not save you.

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