The Anti-lynching Activism of Ida B. Wells | Facing History & Ourselves
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was an African-American journalist and early civil rights activist.
Lesson

The Anti-lynching Activism of Ida B. Wells

Students explore the life and choices of anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells and learn about the long tradition of Black resistance to racial terror and violence.

Published:

At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History
  • Social Studies

Grade

9–12

Duration

One 50-min class period
  • Racism
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Resistance

Overview

About This Lesson

This lesson takes students back in time to the turn of the twentieth century to underscore the way Mamie Till-Mobley’s choices built on a long tradition of Black resistance to racial terror and violence. In particular, students will explore the life and choices of anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells. They will connect Wells’s activism to the choices of Till-Mobley, who exposed the brutality of racial violence and white supremacy following her son’s murder.  

As we pursue racial justice today, what can be learned from the choices people have made in response to racial violence in the past?

How does the history of Ida B. Wells's truth-telling in the face of racial violence help us understand the power of the choices Mamie Till-Mobley made after her son was murdered?

  • Students will examine how Ida B. Wells used the Black press to expose the truth about lynchings and advocate for racial justice.
  • Students will analyze the factors that motivated Wells to speak out against racial injustice in spite of the dangers she faced.
  • Students will connect Wells’s choices to the choices made by Mamie Till-Mobley in the aftermath of her son’s murder.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 1 video
  • 2 readings
  • 1 handout

The story of Emmett Till’s murder is part of the long history of lynching, as well as the equally long fight waged by Black Americans to challenge racial violence and injustice in the United States. From 1877 to 1950, over 4,000 documented lynchings of African Americans occurred in the South and another 300 occurred in other states. 1 In seeking justice for Emmett Till, the NAACP called his murder a lynching and would push Congress to pass anti-lynching legislation. Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced to Congress after 1901, yet lynching did not become a federal crime until the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act was enacted in 2022. 

The fact that lynching has only recently become a federal crime illustrates a contradiction that has motivated the protest and agitation efforts of generations of anti-lynching activists: How could America be the “Land of the Free” while condoning the lynchings of thousands of African Americans? Among the most prominent anti-lynching activists in history is Ida B. Wells. In the post-Reconstruction era, while some Black leaders advanced an approach of strategic accommodation to segregation, Wells advanced a more militant plan. She used the press to launch an anti-lynching campaign and champion racial, gender, and economic justice and challenge the hypocrisy of American democracy. By 1910, the FBI recognized her influence in encouraging African Americans to demand justice and considered her “one of the most dangerous Negro agitators.”

Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862 and was raised during Reconstruction, a time when African Americans were promised freedom, citizenship, and suffrage. In 1878, both her parents and a sibling passed away from yellow fever. At age 16, Wells became the primary caretaker of her five younger siblings while working as a teacher and attending school at Rust College. In 1882, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and began her journalism career. She became co-owner the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, a Black newspaper, and wrote cutting editorials that denounced the lynchings of African Americans. She published under the pen name Iola to protect herself from violent reprisals. 

In March 1892, Wells’s close friend Thomas Moss was lynched along with his business partners, Calvin McDowell and Henry Stewart. The three Black men owned the People’s Grocery Store in Memphis, the success of which was received as a threat to the local white grocery. Moss and his associates were arrested after allegedly plotting a “conspiracy” to ambush and kill white residents. Days later, a mob of 75 masked men entered the jail and kidnapped and then lynched all three Black men. 

Recognizing that Moss and his partners had been lynched for economically competing with white business owners, Wells set out to investigate the truth behind the lynchings of African Americans. For two months, Wells traveled the South, interviewing both Black and white Southerners. Wells’s research found that the criminal accusations were used as a pretext to protect the reputation of a white families when an interracial relationship was discovered, or, in Wells’s words, “to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property.” 2 In May of 1892, Wells published a scathing editorial in her Free Speech newspaper, declaring,

[N]obody in this section believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.


A white mob found this statement sufficient provocation to destroy the Free Speech office and threaten Wells’s life. Wells, who was in New York at time, learned from friends that white men were stationed at her home and at Memphis train stations, waiting to kill her on sight. Wells decided to never return to Memphis and redoubled her anti-lynching efforts from New York and, later, Chicago. In her autobiography, she wrote, “Having lost my paper, had a price put on my life, and been made an exile from home for hinting at the truth, I felt that I owed it to myself and to my race to tell the whole truth now that I was where I could do so freely.” 3

  • 1Equal Justice Initiative,
  • 2Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 56.
  • 3Wells-Barnett, Crusade for Justice, 62.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Following this lesson, students will complete the third of four formative activities interspersed throughout the unit that are designed to help them develop their thoughts, gather evidence, and continually reflect back on the essential question in preparation for the summative assignment. You should assign the activity as homework. See Formative Activity 3: Learning from Ida B. Wells in the “Homework” section of this lesson plan for directions for this activity.

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Lesson Plans

Activities

Begin the lesson by sharing the following quote from journalist and activist Ida B. Wells: 

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” 

—Ida B. Wells, The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader

Ask students to reflect on the quote by responding to the following questions in their journals:

  • What does this quote mean to you?
  • What connections (for example, in your life or current events) do you make to this quote?

Ask volunteers to share their responses with the class.

Explain to students that Emmett Till’s murder was part of a long history of violence used to enforce white supremacy, but the response to his murder, especially the activism it inspired from the Black community, also built on a long tradition of African American resistance to racial terror and violence. Tell students that in class today, they will go back in time to the late nineteenth century to examine the life and choices of an influential anti-lynching activist, Ida B. Wells. This will help them contextualize the choices of Mamie Till-Mobley in the aftermath of her son’s murder, which students explored in the previous lesson.

Explain to students that they will watch a TEDEd video on Ida B. Wells (0:00–4:34), narrated by Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University. As they watch, ask students to answer the following comprehension questions in their journals. (Timestamps are included in case you’d like to pause the video to give students time to write.)

  • After the Civil War, how did Southern whites attempt to reassert their power? (1:28)
  • According to Wells’s research, why were African Americans lynched in the years after the Civil War? (2:17)
  • How did Wells challenge racial violence? (3:06)
  • Wells did not compromise her vision for justice. Provide an example from the video that reflects her commitment to that vision. (4:34)

Close the activity by posing the following question to the class: Why do you think Wells chose to speak out against lynching, despite the risk? Instruct students to discuss the question in pairs, and then encourage volunteers to share with the whole class. 

Explain to students that in the next part of the lesson, they will read an excerpt from Ida B. Wells’s autobiography, Crusade for Justice, to try to understand the factors that motivated Wells to speak out against racial injustice, especially at a time when it would have been safer for her to give up her writing and advocacy. As a class or in small groups of two or three, have students read the Excerpt from Crusade for Justice.  

Distribute the handout Say, Mean, Matter: Excerpt from Crusade for Justice.

Explain to students that they will focus their attention on two specific passages from the Wells excerpt. They will conduct a “Say, Mean, Matter” analysis—read the passage, rewrite it in their own words, and analyze its significance. After analyzing the two passages, students are asked to select two additional quotes. 

Here are possible interpretations of two passages:

  • “I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.” (Students may conclude that it took courage, determination, or passion for justice.)
  • “My friends declared that the trains and my home were being watched by white men who promised to kill me on sight. They also told me that colored men were organized to protect me if I should return.” (Students might conclude that Wells relied on a network of allies to share important information and that this network was willing to protect her if she decided to return to Memphis.)

After students have had enough time to write, instruct them to share their responses in pairs or small groups. Bring the whole class together and invite volunteers to share their interpretation of each quote.

 

In the final activity of this lesson, students will discuss the connections between Ida B. Wells’s truth-telling and Mamie Till-Mobley’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral and have photos of her son’s remains published in Jet magazine. Have students take out the source they examined in the previous lesson, Mamie Till-Mobley Chooses to Hold an Open-Casket Funeral. Have students refer to this source during the class discussion.

Then display the following quote from the Ida B. Wells excerpt that students examined in the previous activity: 

“Having lost my paper, had a price put on my life, and been made an exile from home for hinting at the truth, I felt that I owed it to myself and to my race to tell the whole truth.”

Lead a class discussion guided by the following questions: 

  • Why do you think the threat of violence moved Wells from “hinting” at the truth to telling “the whole truth”? 
  • What connections can you make between Ida B. Wells’s dedication to truth-telling and the choices Mamie Till-Mobley made after her son’s murder (Lesson 3)? 
  • Why was Wells so committed to telling the truth that she risked everything to continue telling it? What was at stake for her? What was at stake for Mamie Till-Mobley?
  • How did both Wells and Till-Mobley use the media to pursue justice? 
  • What are some examples of truth-tellers in the media today? How does their work sustain democracy?

Extension Activities

This lesson focuses on the bravery of Ida B. Wells’s choice to confront racial violence, but you may want to extend students’ understanding of Wells’s work by having them read more of her writing.

As an extension for this lesson, consider assigning an excerpt from “Lynching and the Excuse for It,” an editorial Wells published in the New York Independent in 1901. Wells wrote it in response to an article by Jane Addams, a progressive who was known for her work serving immigrant communities in Chicago. In her article, Addams rationalized the violence of white lynch mobs as a natural reaction to alleged crimes committed by African Americans, effectively transferring culpability from the lynch mob to the victim. Wells wrote this editorial to correct Addams’s claims using lynching data from the 728 lynchings she documented from 1882 to 1891. Students can respond to the reading using the Take Note strategy or another teaching strategy of your choosing. 

Share the following directions with students and have them complete the activity for homework:

In Lesson 4, you examined the choices made by Ida B. Wells to speak out against racial lynchings. Review the primary source documents from this lesson. 

Next, highlight words, phrases, or quotations from the documents that illustrate what it took for Wells to take a stand against racial terror. In your journal, write down some initial thoughts reflecting on how this evidence could help you answer the essential question: “As we pursue racial justice today, what can be learned from the choices people have made in response to racial violence in the past?”

 

Materials and Downloads

Special Thanks

The Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley Institute and Facing History & Ourselves would like to offer a special thank you to the partners, collaborators, and student advisors who made critical contributions to this curricular unit. They include colleagues from within the Till Institute as well as the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, the Alluvial Collective and students from across Mississippi.

Kobie Austin

Christopher Benson

Kenyatta Coleman

Kinsey Crowley  

Abby Jo Flowers

Vondaris Gordon

Germaine Hampton

Zykira Hooper

Jataylon Johnson

Madison Jones

Qadre Latiker

Ashura Lewis

Elliot Long

Zakarriya Love

Katilyn Mackey

Kaliyah Mayes

Dr. Marvel Parker

Colin Richardson

Matthew Richey

Jay Rushing

Hannah Shapiro

Mike Small

Bethany Stanford

Ian Underwood

Dr. Earl Watkins

Jamari Williams

Adrianequa Wilchie

Myiesha Wright

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