This past Monday, May 4th, the Pulitzer Prize board announced they were posthumously awarding civil rights icon, Ida B. Wells, as a 2020 recipient in the Special Citations and Awards category. The Pulitzer Prize is an award that is bestowed upon individuals for their achievements in newspaper, magazine and online journalism, literature, and musical composition in the U.S.
Wells was a prominent Black journalist, abolitionist and feminist, who was prominently on the frontlines of civil rights, helping lead the anti-lynching crusade in the U.S. during the 1890s.
According to their website, Wells was awarded the prize “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
In reviewing the list of other prominent African Americans who have received the award since its inception, Wells joins other recipients such as Aretha Franklin (2019); John Coltrane (2007); Thelonious Monk (2006); Duke Ellington (1999); and Alex Haley (1977).
In a statement released on Facebook on May 5th by the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, Michelle Duster emphasized the significance of her great-grandmother being honored in such a way at this time, stating:
“It is an amazing honor for my great-grandmother Ida B Wells to be awarded a posthumous 2020 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. She spent almost fifty years of her life fighting for justice. She did not have the right to vote until she was in her 50s. She had modest financial resources. So the only thing she had to fight against racist oppression and the violent practice of lynching, was the truth. Ida used journalism as a tool to fight for justice. She faced great danger and endured harsh criticism. Her printing press was destroyed. Her life was threatened. But she truly believed that by collecting names, dates, and circumstances around the lynchings that she could transform attitudes and impact policy and laws. The fact that she received this honor in 2020 is fitting. It is the centennial of the 19th Amendment and an election year. So all of her work is relevant in the context of where we are today in this historic moment.”
Wells was born a slave in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Both of her parents knew how to read, so they taught her how to read at an early age. Growing up around political activists gave Wells a sense of hope about the hope and future possibilities for former slaves in American society. After both of her parents and her infant brother died unexpectedly when she was 16 years old, she had to take on the responsibility of raising her five younger brothers and sisters.
While in Memphis, she had become accustomed to riding the train in whatever seat she chose, but in 1883 she sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad because they forbade her from sitting in the ladies coach. This incident sparked Wells to write an article about the experience, which became an instant success and helped influence her to change her career to become a journalist.
Wells continued to fight against injustices all throughout the South and decided to use the power of her pen to expose the motives behind the violence against Black people. As lynching had become one of the main strategic tools to terrorize Blacks in the South, Wells wrote about lynching and began to expose it, becoming the focal point of her crusade for justice.
When three of her male friends, who were successful businessmen, were lynched on the pretext of a crime they did not commit, Wells wrote about the situation with a clarity and forcefulness that riveted the attention of both Blacks and Whites. She advocated for both an economic boycott and a mass exodus, and traveled throughout the United States and England, writing and speaking about lynching and the government’s refusal to intervene to stop it. This so enraged her enemies that they burned her presses, and put a price on her head, threatening her life if she returned to the South. She remained in exile for almost forty years.
Eventually, Wells purchased partial interest in a Black newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight (later renamed Free Speech), and became its editor. Wells did not shy away from controversy in the pages of Free Speech. A turning point in her career occurred when she wrote an article that was very critical of Memphis’s separate but not-so-equal schools. The anonymous piece described the rundown buildings and teachers who had received little more education than their students. Such revelations did not sit well with members of the local Board of Education. Along with everyone else who had heard of Free Speech, they knew that Wells was the one who had written the article. The uproar cost Wells her teaching job.
Wells earned enough money to purchase a half-share of Free Speech and under her leadership the circulation increased from 1,500 to 4,000. Readers relied on Free Speech to tackle the most controversial subjects, even when that meant speaking out against Blacks as well as Whites. When Wells received word that her friend Tom Moss, the father of her goddaughter, had been lynched, she quickly came to the realization that lynching’s were not being used to punish criminals, but was being used to enforce White supremacy. Moss’s only crime was that he was successfully competing with a White grocer, and for this he and his partners were murdered. In a series of deeply scathing editorials in Free Speech, she urged Blacks to boycott Memphis’s new streetcar line and move out west if possible.
Black people listened to Wells and began leaving Memphis by the hundreds. Two pastors of large Black churches took their entire congregations to Oklahoma, and others soon followed. Those who stayed behind boycotted White businesses, creating financial hardships for commercial establishments as well as for the public transportation system. The city’s papers attempted to dissuade Blacks from leaving by reporting on the hostile American Indians and dangerous diseases awaiting them out west. To counter their claims, Wells spent three weeks traveling in Oklahoma. Upon her return she published a firsthand account of the actual conditions. Fast becoming a target for angry White men and women, she was advised by friends to ease up on her editorials. Instead, Wells decided to carry a pistol.
Ida B. Wells helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and continued her advocacy work until she died in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of 68.
In addition to receiving the Pulitzer Prize award, the Pulitzer Prize board also announced via their website that the award given to Wells, “comes with a bequest by the Pulitzer Prize board of at least $50,000 in support of her mission,” and the recipients of those funds will be named at a later date.