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In Praise of Ida B. Wells

“Brave men do not gather by thousands to torture and murder a single individual, so gagged and bound he cannot make even feeble resistance or defense.” – Ida B. Wells

As Black History Month draws to a close, I would like to write of one of my heroes, Ida B. Wells. A fierce advocate for racial and women’s equality and justice, she did what few were willing to. In 1884, she refused to sit in the “Jim Crow” car of a train and was dragged from it by force, 71 years before Rosa Parks’ famous act.

“I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggage man and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”

She sued. A black woman in Memphis in 1884, sued a white company and won in the lower courts. She lost her case when it was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, but the publicity gave her a platform from which to do future work.

We owe her a great many debts, but the most important one to me is that she worked tirelessly as a journalist, author, and public speaker both throughout the US and in Europe to bring attention to the hideous crimes of lynching in the US. Today I cannot read the quote that starts this post without thinking of the men still languishing in Guantanamo Bay. Her words – firmly rooted in her times – have a long reach. She speaks to me and for me, when I think of the thousands tortured, raped, and killed in the name of national defense, in the name of upholding our way of life, in the name of protecting our borders. Lynch mobs also try to uphold a way of life and protect borders. But the truth is, the borders are within us.

The legacy of Ida B. Wells calls to me to ever examine the walls I want to build, the ways in which I want to see some person, nationality, religion, gender or species as “other” than myself. As a Pagan and magic worker, I know, deeply in my soul, that nothing is “other,” that this separation is a lie that upholds violence and brutality to the earth, to animals, to humans and in the end, to ourselves.

Today, I feel so grateful for her example, for all her years of work for women’s suffrage, for racial equality, and for raising her voice for freedom.

Ida B. Wells became the first African American woman to run for public office in 1930, one year before she died. A fighter to the end. May we take her example to heart and rise to the occasion.

For Ida B. Wells, we give thanks.

[To help us remember that the need to walk toward freedom is ever with us – and that anyone can make a difference – here is the story of another woman who saw what was needed and stood up. Written by Pete Seeger, this version is sung by Ani di Franco.]

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