There’s a notable group of writers who exposed hideous truths and awoke the conscience of millions. Upton Sinclair exposed the meatpacking industry. Jacob Riis publicized how “the other half lives.” Nelly Bly laid bare the bleakness of mental institutions. And a Black journalist named Ida B. Wells showed the world the horrors of lynching in America.
Born a slave in 1862, Ida B. Wells gained freedom with the ending of the Civil War. However, the end of slavery was not the end of white supremacy. Some 72 years before Rosa Parks’s refusing to give up her seat sparked the civil rights movement, Wells was arrested for doing the same on a train. She started her writing career chronicling that action. However, the racism she would report in subsequent articles was of a much more sinister, lethal nature. This anthology, The Light of Truth brings these pieces together.
The first Chapter includes her early writings under the pseudonym Iola, which provides the context of post-Reconstruction racism. Then, in the following Chapter, Wells brings together her groundbreaking reporting on lynching. Most notable is her essay Southern Horrors, which also explains “Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” Ida B. Wells is also noteworthy for exposing the rape myth of the Black man as a sexual threat (which the lynch mobs and enabling law-enforcement officials used to justify their acts). Indeed, this racist trope is still visible in 21st-century America.
Chapter 3 comprises Ms. Wells’s reporting in Great Britain. During her two speaking tours, she not only made the people of that country aware of the atrocities in the U.S., she also awoke that nation’s conscience to its own history of the slave trade. Yet, there here safety was not in jeopardy.
The fourth chapter includes A Red Record, a careful compilation of the actual occurrences of lynching throughout the South, as well as in some northern states. In the preface of this, Ms. Well’s longest work, Frederick Douglass said, “Let me give you thanks for your faithful paper on the lynch abomination…. There is no word equal to it in convincing power.” He continued: “Brave woman! You have done more for your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured.” This essay is still very much relevant today. The Equal Justice Initiative, the organization Bryan Stevenson founded and described in his acclaimed book, Just Mercy, has continued this critical documentation. In fact, EJI recently reported on its recent finding of an additional 2,000 Black people murdered through lynching. Although whites were also the victims of lynch mobs, Ms. Wells assembled the hard statistics to demonstrate how Blacks were murdered in this manner in much greater numbers, using this to support her claim that lynching was an act of racism, white supremacy.
The fifth and final chapter is a compilation of her writing of the 20th century. Declaring lynching “the greatest outrage of the century,” these articles are calls for action. Among them are enfranchisement, written in 1910, something that would not become law for another 55 years.
This excellent anthology includes detailed notes for historical context and a fine essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr. In May, 2020, “For her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching,” Ida B. Wells was finally honored with the Pulitzer Prize. As to why this matters, an article in the Washington Post explains, “Wells shone a light on the incongruities between American lynching narratives and the realities of mob violence.” That day, Nikole Hannah-Jones also earned a Pulitzer, for the landmark “1619 Project” in the New York Times. In her writings assembled here, Ida B. Wells, probably more than anyone else, brought the darkness of violence of Black Americans to light.