Southern Horrors | Study Guide

Ida B. Wells

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Southern Horrors | Summary & Analysis



Cause for a Campaign

Ida B. Wells's campaign began in March 1892 in Memphis, Tennessee, after three of her friends were lynched. A lynching is a public murder, generally by hanging, carried out by a mob and not preceded by a legal trial. The victim is often subjected to torture before or after being hanged. The author's friends were black entrepreneurs who had opened the People's Grocery Company. Their store competed with a white-owned store nearby that had previously monopolized the trade of the area's black citizens. A series of racial incidents soon followed. It ended in a confrontation between a white mob and the black grocers, who shot and wounded three white men barging into their store. The white men were not seriously injured, but exaggerated newspaper accounts of the incident stoked white hatred. Another mob of 75 white men stormed the jail where the grocers were being held. The lynch mob took charge of the prisoners and promptly and brutally murdered them.

Wells's Response

Wells, an African American journalist and part-owner of a black newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech, began writing a series of pointed editorials. At first she called for black citizens to move out of Memphis. She noted that lynching was not a response to crime, but rather a tool of oppression meant to uphold white economic power. This theme also runs through the pamphlet Southern Horrors. The pamphlet directly confronts and debunks the idea that lynching was a legitimate response to the alleged rape of white women by black men. It was the first piece of writing to do this. Wells supports her thesis with information gleaned from an extensive investigation of the widespread, lawless torture and murder of black men and women. She cites numerous incidents in the pamphlet, many of which were reported in some fashion in the white press. These incidents demonstrate that black men were falsely accused of rape and other crimes. In addition, black men were also being punished for consensual relations between themselves and their white female partners.

Preface and Hon. Fred. Douglass's Letter

The preface to the pamphlet explains the evolution of the study, saying its purpose is to give an unvarnished, or true, account of Southern lynching. Wells also includes a short letter from Frederick Douglass, a respected abolitionist and African American statesman, which endorses the pamphlet for exposing lynching crime.

The Offense

This section begins with an account of how a lynch mob came for the editors of The Memphis Free Speech, which Wells refers to as "Free Speech." This incident occurred after an editorial, published on May 21, 1892, decried the recent lynching of eight men. These men lived in three different parts of the country, but all were accused of the crime of rape. In her editorial, Wells said that no one in her section of the country believes the old, worn-out lie that African American men are likely to rape white women. Moreover, Southern men may go overboard in their accusations. This leads the white public to arrive at a conclusion that damages the "moral reputation" of their women. Wells means that people may have to face up to the fact that white women may willingly engage in intimate relations with black men. She alludes to morality because such relations occur outside the bonds of marriage. In addition, sexual relations between the races are illegal in the South in her era. Sexual relations between black men and white women are considered to be "abominable," or extremely morally repulsive, by white standards.

Wells quotes two white newspapers calling for violence against the editors of Free Speech. This newspaper tirade was followed by a meeting of leading businessmen of Memphis, who came together to discuss a retaliatory lynching. Wells was out of town in New York, and her business manager was able to leave town in time to escape the mob. The presses were destroyed. Neither of them could return to Memphis, and the paper was shut down.

Because Wells is in exile as a result of her editorial, she now feels called upon to deliver a more extensive account of the facts. This includes a claim that "many white women in the South ... would marry colored men" if society allowed it. Wells states that the South's miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial intimacy allow white men to seduce black women. But Wells points out that such laws deal death to black men entering into sexual relationships with white women. Wells points out the double standard, reminding the reader about black female slaves who had been raped or taken as mistresses by whites during their long captivity in the South. Wells insists that white men continued to have sexual relations with black women after the Civil War, and even if they were not consensual, the men suffered few consequences.

The Black and White of It

In this section, Wells describes relationships between white women and black men and their consequences. She first brings up a case in which a white woman accused her black lover of rape for fear that her husband would find out about her affair. In the end she confessed her lie to her spouse after her lover had already served four years in prison. Wells provides additional examples of interracial coupling, claiming there are thousands of such cases. For example, one white woman indicted for miscegenation swore in court she was not white to avoid jail time and remain with her lover. Another young woman, age 17, gave birth to a black child and refused to reveal the name of her black partner. In another case, a white woman gave birth to a black child and named three men as the father. All the men "disappeared," presumably killed for the same offense. Frank Weems of Chattanooga, Tennessee, avoided lynching because some prominent citizens watched over him when he was taken to jail for rape. He had a pack of letters from the woman in question, proving their affair was consensual. In one particularly gruesome case, Edward Coy was burned alive in Texarkana, Arkansas, while protesting his innocence. According to one newspaper report, the woman in question was compelled to charge the victim Coy and lit the match. Meanwhile, a large number of the white men involved in Coy's horrific murder had likely fathered biracial children, according to Wells.

Wells relates details, mostly gleaned from newspapers, of more than a dozen incidents in which black men either ran away after being charged or were jailed or tortured and killed. The incidents include men accused of rape while having consensual sex and those who had merely a passing acquaintance with a white woman. Wells also demonstrates how white women are under pressure to lie about these affairs and ensure their lovers' deaths. In some instances, they run away themselves or attempt to protect their lovers. Wells juxtaposes the innocence of the black men with incidents of white men guilty of raping or attempting to rape black women or girls. For example, she names a white man, Pat Hanifan, who raped a black girl, delivering physical injuries that ruined her for life. He received only six months for this crime and later became a detective in Nashville.

The New Cry

In this section the author explains how the leading men of the South make apologies for lynching as a response to a heinous crime. At the same time, white men are not punished for their rapes of black females. She makes the point that lynching is not a response to rape. It is an intimidation tactic used by white men to retain rule in the South following the Civil War. It aims to frighten blacks so they are reluctant to exercise their freedom, their civil liberties, and their right to vote. The "new cry" that she references in the heading for this section is, "This is a white man's country and the white man must rule."

Wells points out that blacks often conceded to the scaling back of their rights to avoid "wholesale massacres." They believed they would eventually be allowed to participate in governance. But this has not been the case, says Wells. She cites as an example the fact that almost all of the Southern states passed laws segregating rail travel (following the repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1883).

Wells points out that not only did African Americans lose rights, but they also continue to be murdered—878 by lynching from 1884 to 1892. Of the 728 of these victims counted by the Chicago Tribune, only one-third had been charged with rape, not judged to be guilty. But even so, the statistics show that lynching is not primarily a response to rape. Wells points out that community leaders, including clergy and newspaper people, have tacitly encouraged lynching by not speaking out. As a result, "the black shadow of lawlessness in the form of lynch law is spreading its wings over the whole country." Both black and white leaders who approve of lynching for the crime of rape open the door to lynching for any crime.

In summary, Wells is arguing that some people turn a blind eye to lynching if they think it is done as a kind of rough justice in response to the rape of a woman. But in fact, even if a man commits such a crime, he is still entitled to due process under the law and is innocent until proven guilty. By acquiescing to the so-called necessity of frontier justice, the American people are opening the door to anarchy, lawlessness, and injustice. Furthermore, she states, the mob spirit has grown as African Americans are able to increase their "intelligence," or educate themselves, since the true object of lynching is to suppress the black population.

The Data and Laws Behind "The New Cry"

In "The New Cry," Wells makes the point that lynching became what in modern terms people would call a homegrown form of terrorism to keep black people in "their place." Contemporary data bears out Wells's conclusions. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States between 1882 and 1968. Of these casualties, 3,446 were black (about 73 percent). These are recorded numbers, and it is likely there were many more lynchings than were recorded. Nor was lynching confined to the South or the post–Civil War era. Lynchings occurred both before and after the Civil War and in the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest.

Wells references civil rights laws in this section. The Civil Rights Act of 1875, the first law passed to forbid discrimination in public places, was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883. It was part of the ruling in the Civil Rights Cases. The Court also ruled that the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution did not preclude "uncodified" discrimination. In essence, the court took the teeth out of these amendments. The 13th Amendment had freed the slaves. The 14th Amendment had granted equal protection to African Americans under the law. In fact, the court's decisions opened wide the door to sanctioned racial discrimination, segregation, and the provision of "separate but equal" accommodations. These rulings were the foundation for the so-called Jim Crow laws that would govern race relations, segregating the South in all areas of public and social life until the 1960s.

The Malicious and Untruthful White Press

In the next section of her pamphlet, Wells takes the white press to task. She says these newspapers stir up the public against African Americans and encourage the lynching of blacks based on hearsay reports of rape. Wells uses the actual words from newspaper editorials. One claims that African Americans have lost their "wholesome awe of the white race which kept the Negroes in subjection." The writer claims the unprotected families of the South were left unharmed by their slaves when white men went off to fight in the Civil War. The writer says the families were safe because black people still knew how to keep their place. Another editorial faults African Americans for their "boorish insolence" toward white people. Black people have learned enough to know they are hopelessly behind their white counterparts, this writer claims. The writer says blacks wish to get even with whites because they (African Americans) know they are inferior.

Wells then provides details of the case of three black friends who were arrested for defending themselves against a white mob. The men—grocers Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart—were then secretly taken from jail and brutally lynched. The lesson meant to be learned by the black community is subordination. The African American ministers, newspapers, and community leaders counsel obedience to the law, but the law does not protect them. Free Speech thus advised black people to leave Memphis and settle elsewhere, and they did leave in large numbers. But subsequently Wells's newspaper office was attacked. This was after she commented on the false perception of the honor of Southern white women. She argued that they were not being raped but rather chose to engage in consensual sex with black men. The manager was able to escape the mob. Wells was away in New York. However, their business was destroyed, and they were exiled from their town.

The South's Position

This section of the pamphlet begins by commenting on the speeches Henry W. Grady (1850-89) gave in New England and New York. He was a spokesman for "the New South" after the Civil War and sought Northern investment in fledgling Southern industries. Wells accuses Grady of depicting the African American population as "incapable of self-government." In fact, Grady presents a rosy picture of the South to his potential Northern backers, claiming that racial problems have been solved. On the other hand, Wells points out that the New South is the same as the Old South for African Americans. In the New South, African Americans are still robbed of their vote, their civil rights, due process, and the fruits of their labors. They are still tortured and murdered. Southerners as a whole seem unaware that the foundation of government and law and order are "imperiled" by the law of the noose. Moreover, the lawlessness of the South has spread to New York, Pennsylvania, and the Western plains, Wells says.

Wells cites some appropriate responses on the part of lawmakers and clergy to "lynch law," and some large newspapers have stepped up to condemn it. The president of the United States (Benjamin Harrison), she says, has said lynch law will not be allowed in the Western territories. Wells quotes extensively from a letter written by Colonel A.S. Colyar to the Nashville American. He strongly condemns lynching as "dastardly submission to the mob reign." Colyar says lynching supplants the court and jury, "giving up the jail keys to the mob whenever they are demanded." Nonetheless, lynching remains unabated, says Wells, and those who disapprove of lynching and remain silent are no better than accomplices. They are accessories, or helpers, before and after the fact, just as guilty as the actual lawbreakers. The lawbreakers persist because they know that neither "the law nor the militia" will be used to stop them. In other words, lynching would not be possible without the tacit complicity of state and local officials. The populace also turns a blind eye to these proceedings.


The author ends her treatise with specific advice for African Americans. With no help coming from the government, they must look to themselves. First, she points out that the South owes its "rehabilitation," or recovery from the Civil War, to Northern money and "Afro-American labor." Second, she urges Southern blacks to turn their backs on places where they are oppressed and marginalized and to emigrate to other cities, states or territories. Wells also calls for boycotts of segregated transportation. This was well ahead of the famous Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. The Montgomery boycott was successfully carried out by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders from 1955 to 1956. It occurred after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. Wells notes that "the appeal to the white man's pocket has ever been more effectual than all the appeals ever made to his conscience."

Wells also recommends that black people keep a rifle in their homes to protect themselves because the law does not protect them. She notes that if it became well known that African Americans were ready to fire on intruders, white aggressors might have "greater respect for African American life." Finally, Wells reminds readers she has substantiated how the press generally is unreliable and biased in reporting lynchings. Thus, it is necessary for black people to create a more robust African American press and get the facts in front of the public.

Effects of Southern Horrors

About 6,000 African Americans left Memphis as a result of Ida B. Wells's prodding, many of them settling in the new Oklahoma territory. Her text is remarkable for its time. It contains a frank discussion of the sexual politics of race. It is also noteworthy in conveying her clear understanding that racism was a method for retaining economic power. She is also unusual for her time in her radical response to racial oppression. She encouraged African Americans to fight back economically and physically against white people. She went so far as to call on African Americans to arm themselves in their homes. She does not mince words when she deconstructs the governmental response to lynching. She is not afraid to say that the social, political, and economic power structure supports lynching. She understands the role of lynching in deterring African Americans from openly enjoying the full rights of citizenship.

Continued Activism

Ida B. Wells continued to fight against lynching, writing two additional investigative reports, A Red Record (1895) and Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900). She spoke widely in public forums, going as far as England to get her cause in front of the public. Wells was part of the Niagara Movement, which led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She fought for civil rights and women's rights for the rest of her life.

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