Today is the 153rd anniversary of the birth of famed African American journalist, speaker, civil rights activist and suffragist Ida Bell Wells.
As a journalist, Wells wrote for the Chicago newspaper the Daily Inter Ocean. She gained fame for her investigative reporting of lynching in the U.S., demonstrating that in many cases African Americans were being lynched as a means of punishing blacks who “didn’t know their place,” rather than as punishment for a specific crime. And, of course, she pointed out that rarely was any evidence used to justify a lynching even when a crime had been committed.
In a harrowing story she wrote in 1893 titled “The Brutal Truth,” Wells chronicled the lynching of African American Sea J. Miller for allegedly murdering two while girls. There wasn’t a shred of evidence linking Miller, who was apprehended in Illinois, of the crime that had been committed in Kentucky – but, as Wells pointed out, the mob in Kentucky of about 300 unruly men had spent the day draining 30 barrels of beer while authorities were looking for a suspect, and the crowd was out for blood.
After describing in horrific detail the brutality of Miller’s lynching – being first hung, then shot repeatedly, mutilated, and his body burnt – Wells concluded her article:
Thus perished another of the many victims of lynch-law, but it is the honest, sober belief of many who witnessed the scene, that an innocent man has been barbarously and shockingly put to death in the glare of the nineteenth century civilization, by those who profess to believe in Christianity, law, and order. These and similar deeds of violence are committed under the protection of the American flag and mostly upon the descendants of the negro race. Had Miller been ever so guilty under the laws, he was entitled to a fair trial. But there is absolutely no proof of his guilt…
How long shall it be said of free America that a man shall not be given time nor opportunity to prove his innocence of crimes charged against him?