Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Today would be Ida B. Wells’ 159th birthday, so we want to take some time to talk about the civil rights icon and share the story of how she risked her life to help save 12 innocent people, and how her fierce commitment to justice inspires us still today.
Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida B. Wells was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation as a baby. She lost her parents at just 16 years old and moved her family to Memphis, Tennessee for work, where she eventually became the co-owner of and journalist at the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, covering racial segregation and inequality.
For much of her life, Ida avoided the South because in 1892, after she wrote about three Black men who were lynched for opening a grocery store that competed with a white-owned grocery store in Memphis, her newspaper was destroyed by a white mob. She was threatened with lynching if she ever came back to Memphis. But about 20 years later, she returned to the South, determined to continue her investigative reporting.
In 1919, white mobs murdered an estimated 50 to 200 Black people in Elaine, Arkansas, over a two-day period of widespread violence — the event is now known as the Elaine Massacre. But local officials did the unthinkable. They lied and spread the false narrative that members of the Black community had planned an insurrection and incited violence. Dozens of Black people were arrested and twelve Black men — all of whom were innocent — were sentenced to death by all-white juries with almost no deliberation.
Ida risked her life to interview the men on death row to expose the injustice and reveal the truth. Thankfully, in part because of her reporting, all 12 men were acquitted with the help of the NAACP, which Ida also co-founded.
She spent her life advocating for equal justice and because of all her work, Memphis is putting up a statue in her honor today. But the fight for freedom and equality is not over.
Today, in Tennessee, a Black man named Pervis Payne is still facing many of the same injustices that Ida fought against. Pervis has been on death row for 33 years for a crime he’s always said he didn’t commit. And he’s facing execution even though he has an intellectual disability, which makes it unconstitutional to execute him. He was accused of attacking a white woman, and at his trial in Shelby County, which includes Memphis, the prosecutor played up racial stereotypes to paint Pervis as a violent drug user even though there was absolutely no evidence to support this.
So today, in honor of Ida B. Wells’ birthday, please help continue her work of fighting for the truth by speaking up for Pervis right now.