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Why we must ALWAYS Honor Ida…Celebrating Her Pulitzer Prize

Lakeisha Gray-Sewell

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Ida Bell Wells lived her life in persistent pursuit of justice for the barbaric lynchings and human rights violations of Black lives throughout the South. For her, the press and journalism were the surest way to shed a light into the shadows of White American terrorism.  She wanted the world to stand witness to the savagery that was inflicted on Black lives as they transitioned to freedom from slavery into reconstruction and then the Jim Crow south. 

It was her belief that, “the people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.” This passionate stance guided her to use writing as an activist and organizing tool. Wells began to write articles that exposed racism and unfair policies. She contributed to Black-owned newspapers across the country including the Chicago Defender. A fiery voice, her writing evolved into ownership as a publisher of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, as well as the Free Speech.

Eventually, after Ida traveled throughout the south to investigate lynchings, in 1893 she published her findings in a report titled Red Record. This work would garner her speaking engagements and an international tour that took America’s atrocities onto the global stage.

True to form, Ida was outraged by the exclusion of Blacks in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. Her response was to disseminate a pamphlet, “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” 

Her efforts gained her a place on the U.S. governement’s surveillence list as a “race agitator.” White suffragists (read feminists) resented her messages because Ida called them into account for their silence and often complicit contributions to racist violence. Oddly enough other Blacks, who were deemed more appealing to “progressive” white Americans, attempted to shun Ida for being too radical.

Yet she persisted. 

Now nearly 80 years after her death, Ida B. Wells has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her journalistic heroism. 

Ironically, this award comes during these times of COVID-19 when Black lives are susceptible to death due to racial disparities in healthcare, education, and economy.  In these times as we sit stunned by news story after news story of rabid police brutality; when domestic terrorists gun down unarmed Black men as modern day lynchings; and armed militia storm state capitols around the country as “good’ white Americans look away and proclaim Trump is our sole mutual enemy.

Still, Black America must persist. We too must find a way to expose the wicked ways of American  society and the systemic protections of evil that continue to devastate the fabric of our lives. We too must find a way to determine how we will collectively create a just world for Black lives.

Perhaps the answer is in the legacy of Ida B. Wells. Just maybe the timing of her Pulitzer Prize is to remind us of the way forward. Many claim it today, that they are ‘bout that life. But Mother Ida was indeed. She established meaningful organizations and movements. Before it became a favorite word of millennial academicians, Ida was entrenched in intersectional frameworks. Not only was she a co-founder of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), she also formed the National Association of Colored Women, and the Alpha Suffrage Club which trained Black women in civic engagement and to work to elect Black officials.

As of this writing two Black men have been lynched in America: Ahmaud Arbery who was lynched in Georgia, and Sean Reed gunned down by members of the Indianapolis police force. In response our distraught community searches for resolution.

I think Ida already taught us.

Ida and her son Charles
A photo shows Ida B. Wells-Barnett with her son Charles Aked Barnett, circa 1917-1919. On display at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago in 2015.

La'Keisha Gray-Sewell, is a news media relations and strategic communications consultant by trade, and a girls advocate by life assignment. She is an urban youth advocate, cultural critic, and founder of Girls Like Me Project, Inc; a not-for-profit group mentoring program that seeks to help inner-city adolescent girls identify and critically analyze the cultural, social and environmental messages that influence their development. Ultimately helping them learn to navigate beyond those messages to make positive life choices and connect globally with their peers.

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