The 2020 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced May 4th. This year the committee awarded a special citation to the journalist, anti-lynching, suffrage, and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells. This is not an annual occurrence. The regular Pullitzer Prize winning work goes through an application process with a handling fee before consideration by the jury and board. The special citation is selected solely by the Pulitzer Prize board to journalists and/or artistic/cultural figures living or deceased.
The Pulitzer special citation was bestowed in recognization of Ida B. Wells’ “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching” with a bequest of at least $50,000 “in support of her mission.”
The eldest of 8 children, Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in July 1862, just months before the Emancipation Proclamation became law. This made Ida part of the first generation of free African Americans eager to build their path to new possibilities. She was educated by her parents including her politically-active Lincoln Republican father who worked to elect African Americans in both the state house and the U.S. Congress during Reconstruction. The yellow fever epidemic in 1878 claimed the lives of both Ida’s parents and a younger sibling. With the support of relatives, Ida took charge of her surviving siblings to prevent the family from being separated. She eventually settled in Memphis, part of the “new south”, and taught school while writing part-time until she was invited to join the “Free Speech” newspaper as a full-time newspaper journalist. Eventually she would be the co-owner of the newspaper.
The same week of the Pulitzer announcement, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael (both white men) were arrested and charged for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed African Amercan man who was shot three times in February while jogging in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia. Father and son identified Arbery as a suspect in a rash of break-ins in the neighborhood. No break-ins were reported before Arbery was killed.
William Bryan (also white) recorded the shooting death, and a defense attorney leaked the video with the intention of helping the McMichaels prove their case but instead sparked an unintended national outcry for justice. Bryan too has been arrested and charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
I began this post nearly 3 weeks ago, adding updates relating to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Since then…
An African American man and birder — taking a Memorial Day weekend break from COVID-19 distancing to enjoy bird watching in a section of Central Park reserved for this passion —encounters a white woman who becomes outraged by his request that she follow the park rules and place her dog on its leash. Her attempt to use whiteness as a weapon while practically strangling the dog by the collar was recorded by Christian Cooper, the “African American man” she describes as “threatening my life” on a 911 call to police. She goes podcast crime drama on the call.
An African American man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, dies a day after a police officer restrains Floyd (who’s handcuffed) by placing his knee on the man’s neck while a bystander records as Floyd says “I can’t breathe.” Floyd was accused of passing a forged $20 bill. Floyd had a security job in the same club where the police officer, Derek Chauvin, moonlighted. Protests for George Floyd in the midst of COVID-19 deaths of 100K, an economic spiral from job losses, profound uncertainty for young adults, happening in Minneapolis and nationwide. (Update: protests in Toronto, London, Berlin)
These stories popped up in my newsfeed within 24 hours of each other. Christian Cooper is lucky to be alive to hear the birds sing another day. The white woman, Amy Cooper (no relation) is fired from her investment banking job, her adopted pet repo’ed, and her credibility crushed. She issues an apology after but it rings hollow. It doesn’t acknowledge her racism when she chose to play her “white woman card” (Ida would’ve called her out) to annihilate a black man who dared to remind her that the rules apply to her too (though unevenly). Derek Chauvin was arrested for 3rd degree murder. There will be a federal civil rights probe as well.
Related to this is a story from Louisville, Kentucky that happened in March, a little over a week before Kentucky’s COVID-19 stay-at-home directive went into effect. Twenty-six-year-old Breonna Taylor, a Louisville ER technician, was killed by plain clothes police officers who broke down the door to her apartment on a drug investigation. Taylor’s home was the wrong apartment. Her boyfriend thought the intruders were armed robbers and fired his gun in self defense. They returned fire striking Taylor at least eight times according to news reports.
Every few days there’s a new video, a real-time unedited digital extended edition of Ida B. Wells’ Red Record. She produced and published the pamphlet in 1895 from Chicago documenting in detail lynchings of men and women in the United States with an analysis. In chapter one she writes:
“In slave times the Negro was kept subservient and submissive by the frequency and severity of the scourging, but, with freedom, a new system of intimidation came into vogue; the Negro was not only whipped and scourged; he was killed.”
I wrote a full-length play “Iola’s Letter,” named for Ida B. Wells’s syndicated column, and based on her story of the anti-lynching crusade she launched in 1892 from her Free Speech newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee. At that time Ida B. Wells was a single 29-year-old former school teacher and journalist. The lynching of Ida’s close friend Thomas Moss, the city’s first black civil service worker (USPS) and his business partners (all three black men) who co-owned the People’s Grocery, a cooperative in a mixed-race neighborhood outside Memphis is the catalyst for Ida’s activism and the launch of a national movement. Ida B. Wells calls for a boycott of Memphis’s downtown businesses and streetcar patronage (built by African Americans), and a mass exodus of black Memphians to the west including the Oklahoma territory. The protest strategy cripples the city’s economy.
As I was preparing “Iola’s Letter” for its first staged reading at Howard University (HBCU) in Washington, DC news of the 1998 beating and dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas by white supremicists was playing in the background. “I never intended for “Iola’s Letter” to be a biography of Ida B. Wells, but to use her life to explore the ideas and issues of her times, finding strong parallels between then and today.” Those were the words I wrote that were printed in the program for the staged reading. I took some creative liberties by populating “Iola’s Letter” with timelines and additional characters who were composites of Ida’s encounters, experiences, perspectives, and writings. These characters fleshed out the conflicts within the Memphis community around race, class, religion, economics, [especially] power and how Ida’s moral and political resolve evolved from the lynching in Memphis that struck at the heart of the matter about the false accusations and mob violence…in her own words:
…an excuse to get rid of Negroes acquiring wealth and property — to keep the race terrorized and keep the “n*gger” down.
The adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” would be a polite refrain to describe Ida’s impact on civil rights using the press. In those times the pen could be the sword that caused the deaths in the first place.
When Ida began her investigations into lynching, she committed to truth-telling and debunking the stories published in Southern white newspapers. She sought and published interviews with actual witnesses, families and friends of the victims, even getting the real story from the accusers. In Memphis Edward W. Carmack, a lawyer, and editor at the Memphis Commercial [now the Commercial Appeal] was one of Ida’s chief nemesis in the profession. He is also a character in “Iola’s Letter” based on the real-life person. Carmack was not the Southern tobacco-spitting “red neck” caricature. He attended an elite boarding school whose mission was to turn out “accurate scholars who know the finer points of morals and practice them in their daily living.”
Carmack took pride in being a provocateur and never hesitated to use his editorial prowess to attack his enemies. His newspaper characterized the People’s Grocery and its owners as a gathering place of criminals and undesirables. This was standard practice to set the stage for a lynching or “justifiable murder” by creating a mythological black male menace. The narrative would support the white owner of the grocery across from its new competitor to incite an incident or provocation that would remove People’s Grocery owners and the business. Carmack would go on to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate. He continued to attack Ida, the “adventuress” (a derogatory term for a woman in those times) while she was abroad, and his political enemies. His pen would eventually sign his own fate.
Many newspapers, like the Commercial Appeal, have made efforts to turn a corner in their reporting on matters of race. In 2018,when the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, the Montgomery Advertiser published the names of 300 victims of lynching with an editorial starting with the sentence “We were wrong” laying bare the newspaper’s role in being complicit and “careless in how it covered mob violence and the terror foisted upon African-Americans from Reconstruction through the 1950s.”
Today social media provides fast and raw evidence, leaving it open for public consumption and interpretation followed by outrage. The unfiltered reactions are delivered at the same fast pace. The rawness is now coming from the very top of the country’s chain of command, doubling down on the racialized system that has been stacked against African Americans for centuries. The current commander-in-chief (lower-case intentional) uses the tools of new media to discredit and attack political enemies and critics. Donald Trump’s tweets and verbal attacks on journalists especially black women and other women of color should be of grave concern beyond their provocative sound bytes. Newsfeeds are showing journalists being arrested and attacked by police, press credentials fully visible. This week one can say an American journalist is just as likely to be attacked doing their jobs at home as they would in a war zone or authoritarian nation abroad.
Ida and her Free Speech newspaper were also targets. The newspaper was burned to the ground by a white mob. Lynching Ida was part of their plan but she escaped that fate. As a result no copies of her newspaper exist today. Because Ida wrote for other newspapers and was invited to speak before allies black and white in the U.S. and the U.K. she was not silenced though she could never return to the south.
125 years later the digital Red Record prompts the same questions, demands for investigations, and a cry for justice. No arrests were made for the Memphis or other lynchings Ida B. Wells brought to light. Most remain unsolved to this day leaving generational wounds on the victims’ descendants, and an unspeakable blighted legacy inherited by the descendants of the men and women who carried out the heinous deeds.
Ida B. Wells and the Ida in “Iola’s Letter” believed in American democracy. Justice was her birthright. Before losing her newspaper she armed herself for protection exercising her 2nd amendment rights when it was against the law for African Americans in Memphis to own guns. She sued the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railroad Company for forcing her to ride in the “smoking car” when she held a ticket for a seat in the “ladies” train car. There was no law on the books about segregated transportation for that railroad. When the conductor grabbed and tried to forcibly remove Ida from the ladies car, the 21 year-old bit his hand. Ida won her case in court, but later had to return her cash reward when the railroad companies appealed. She still believed our systems would work if not for the racism baked into it.
How the Pulitzer’s $50,000 will be spent or what aspect of Ida’s mission will benefit yet to be revealed. It couldn’t re-open local newspapers silenced by economic factors including advertisement-dependent business models and acquisition/liquidation by private equity firms. Perhaps the money can be applied to kick starting journalists to do a deeper dive and investigate the larger global factors at play around white nationalism and the rise of neo-Nazi factions with the intent to drive divisions in multi-racial alliances. The FBI identified their presence in U.S. law enforcement over 10 years ago according to a 2016 PBS NewsHour report. Over the past several days of the protests, residents of Minneapolis have noticed and texted about it.
Ida saw the patterns and kept her sights on the bigger picture and the prize. After a historic long pause I’m glad to see Ida B. Wells finally getting her due, however symbolically simplistic the recognition may be. Even in the case of the women’s suffrage centennial and the passage of the 19th amendment, Ida’s appearance is acknowledgement of the racism within that movement through the erasure of black women’s presence in its history, voice in their gatherings, and acceptance by white women leaders to deny the vote to black women for its own political expediency. Ida and other African American women refused to be silent on that too.
The era of lynching has evolved and found new life in the digital age. The evidence makes clear Ida B. Wells’ mission is not finished.