Ida Wells (1862-1931) and the Interconnectedness of Liberty

Today’s Google Doodle honors Ida Wells, born into slavery in Mississippi on this date in 1862, fearless and tireless anti-lynching activist and heroine of free speech. Writer and owner of several publications, Wells was best known for documenting the post-Reconstruction horrors of “sanctioned violence outside the machinery of the state,” as I described it in this space recently

By the time Wells came to national note in the 1890s, the threat of mob violence had come to be accepted as an endemic part of American life across much of the South and a good part of the North as well. Press freedom, however, was also something real, and Wells could bring the ghastly specifics of lynching practice, as well as the falseness of the arguments used in its defense, to a national audience. Soon a mob in Memphis proceeded to storm and destroy her printing press. But it could not silence her; she was free to carry on from other, safer cities. Is there a better lesson in how civil liberties work to reinforce each other? Because of America’s broad degree of press liberty, Wells could build her case methodically for a right to freedom from mob violence; because mob violence was held in check across enough of the country, Wells could not be prevented from writing, speaking on tour, and soon becoming an internationally known figure of reform and African-American advocacy. 

You can read Wells’ work in many primary sources online: “Lynch Law,” 1893; speech, “Lynch Law in America”; and the pamphlet “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” with a letter of encouragement from Frederick Douglass in Anacostia. Her accomplishments should be of interest to every libertarian and every American. 

P.S. As Nicholas Johnson has recounted at the Volokh Conspiracy, Wells is a notable figure in the history of the Second Amendment as well.