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Ida B. Wells: Fighter for Black Civil Rights to Own Arms

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 4, 2023 3:02 am

Ida B. Wells: Fighter for Black Civil Rights to Own Arms

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 4, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, born into slavery during the Civil War, Ida B. Wells is best remembered as an American journalist who fought tirelessly against lynching during the Jim Crow era. What most people don’t know is that she defended the right of blacks to also own arms. 

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Get your ride right. See app for details. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. Up next, the story of Ida B.

Wells. Born into slavery during the Civil War, she is best remembered as an American journalist who fought tirelessly against lynching during the Jim Crow era. Here to tell her story is our frequent contributor, Ashley Labinski.

Take it away, Ashley. The name Ida B. Wells is most often associated with black American advocacy in the post-Civil War period. She has had a presence that has extended all the way into modern day. But it's kind of interesting to understand her entire story because a solid portion of that has been largely forgotten by the American public. And that was that not only was she a civil rights advocate, not only was she an advocate for women's rights, but she also had a lot to do with the Second Amendment advocacy in terms of self-defense and firearms training for African-Americans.

Ida B. Wells was born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and she spent her first three years of life as an enslaved person. But after the war, the family became active in the Republican Party. So she was a part of a family that were activists really from the start once African-Americans gained their freedom. She attended Russ College for a little bit, but she ended up having to take care of her family because her parents and her brother died in 1878 from yellow fever. So she had several other siblings. She decided to get a job teaching school in order to help support their family.

And they ultimately moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to be near an aunt, so to be near a new family. And her advocacy story really starts because of a legal battle involving a ticket that she purchased for a train ride. She was taking a train ride into the city, and so she decided that she wanted to buy a first class ticket for herself.

But the train company, because of laws at the time, the train company was allowed to segregate the carts. And so they told her that despite the fact that she was able to buy the first class car, that she was going to have to move. And she refused and was physically removed from the train. And so this started a legal battle that she ultimately settled with the train company.

And then two years later, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned her victory. So she definitely got the shaft in that scenario, and that inspired really the beginning of her work, and what she's more well known for, which is journalism. So she started bringing attention to African American issues in America in the post-Civil War period, but also specifically in the post-Civil War South. She became editor and co-owner of a Memphis paper, which was known as The Free Speech and Headlight. And she initially was writing under a pen name, which was kind of a smart idea for a while, because she was bringing up so many difficult issues that she was ultimately fired from her teaching job.

So she went kind of full time into journalism and activism. Now, she's known for African American activism in general, but her Second Amendment advocacy really got started and took off by the 1890s. And there's a really famous quote that she has. I'm actually going to read the entirety of the quote rather than the one line that you often hear from any gun rights group. But she really thought that African Americans needed to learn and train in self-defense, because at that point in time, she really felt that the government was not there to protect her, and there was a lot of instances where that was the case.

And so one of the most famous things that she wrote was called Southern Horrors. And within this, in the 1890s, she wrote, Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year, the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur was where the men armed themselves in Jacksonville, Florida and Paducah, Kentucky, and prevented it. The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense. The lesson this teaches in which every Afro-American should ponder well is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs at great risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged, and lynched.

So a lot of times when you hear kind of this quote from Ida B. Wells, you only hear the part about the Winchester rifle, but it comes within a much larger context. And this attitude that she has in the 1890s, it's personal to her, and I'll talk about that in a second, but at the same time, she is really going off of a centuries-long tradition in American culture and American history of firearms laws that are overtly racist.

So to give kind of a perspective is even dating to the colony. So before the creation of the United States of America, there were laws specifically regulating race and ethnic groups from owning firearms. So it wasn't like you had to guess the interpretation of the law. The law specifically said that, you know, you could not sell guns to Native Americans. You could not sell guns to African Americans.

And some of these laws were so intense that if you were caught selling to one of these groups, then you actually could be sentenced to death, and there were several cases of that happening. But what happens around the end of the Civil War is that the federal government starts intervening in terms of black rights in America. And so in 1866, you get the Civil Rights Act. And so that initial act basically said that you could no longer create these laws based on race. And so what you see exactly that same year, you see the laws going from black people can't own firearms to now we have a regulation on a specific type of firearm. So those firearms were usually cheaper, smaller, inexpensive guns.

So if you know anything about gun laws, you know that, you know, in the post-World War II period, in the latter half of the 20th century, you hear this term Saturday night special, which is a regulation on cheap imported foreign firearms. And so this is kind of a really early version of that. And you've been listening to Ashley Lebinski, and if the voice sounds familiar, well, she's the former co-host of Discovery Channel's Master of Arms. And she's telling the story of Ida B. Wells and a part of it that a lot of people don't know about.

And that is the civil right that mattered a lot to African Americans in the South living in dangerous circumstances and not being able to count on that local sheriff for defense, if anything, for malice and for worse. And when we come back, you're going to hear more about the story of Ida B. Wells, her defense of the Second Amendment, and so much more. And it's a local story we broadcast from Oxford, Mississippi, about an hour south straight as a crow from Memphis. So this is a local story for us, one close to the heart. When we come back, more of the story of Ida B. Wells, her defense of our Second Amendment rights, all Americans, here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns.

But we truly can't do this show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot.

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Let's pick up where we last left off. You see the laws going from black people can't own firearms to now we have a regulation on a specific type of firearm. So those firearms were usually cheaper, smaller, inexpensive guns. So the laws were called Army Navy laws colloquially. And so basically it said you could own a specific type of handgun or revolver as long as it was an Army Navy model. So this is a larger usually handgun and it's a more expensive handgun. But then there were revolvers that were made by other manufacturers that were a lot less expensive, a lot more affordable for an entire economic class of people.

And while those guns had the exact same capacity and the same function as the Army Navy guns, they were regulated and the Army Navy models worked. And so a lot of people interpret this as being a transition from you can't be overtly racist now. So now you're going to legislate based on an economic class. And so she's alive during this time period, although she's very young during the Civil Rights Act and then the 14th Amendment in 1868, which grants African-Americans equal rights under the Constitution.

But you see that even though these laws are changing, they're still having a massive negative impact on African-Americans. And the specific example that inspired her to get into Second Amendment advocacy was the lynching of her friend Thomas Moss. Her friend Thomas Moss owned a grocery store and initially one day got into an argument over a Marbles game that turned into a neighborhood fight. And that fight escalated into a group of people who were from kind of a white owned grocery store nearby that decided to come and try to attack Moss's store.

And they were met with gunfire on the opposite side. And so Moss and several other people were jailed for this. And the really, I mean, just you can see how an African-American during this time could not feel safe because Moss is in jail with several people and a mob of 75 masked men descended on the jail and they dragged the men that were there from their cells and took them to the rail yard and murdered them. And before being shot, Moss was quoted to say, tell my people to go west.

There is no justice here. And this is actually kind of as an aside is an interesting thing to point out because one of the circumstances that you do see in this really violent post-Civil War south is you do see African-Americans starting to go west. And they also start carrying Winchester rifles with them. And in direct response to what happened, Ida B. Wells puts in her memoir, I had bought a pistol the first thing after Tom Moss was lynched because I expected some cowardly retaliation from the lynchers. I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap.

I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit. And she was right. After Moss's lynching, she started really talking about African-American rights in her newspaper. And she did get retaliation about two months later in response to these anti-lynching articles. And when she was out of town, the office for the newspaper was attacked and ransacked. And so Wells ended up deciding to move to New York City. So she moves north and she'll stay north.

She'll ultimately end up in Chicago for the rest of her life. But there's a really interesting example of kind of the impact that she had really to frighten lawmakers, especially in the south, which is that after she wrote Southern Horrors and came out basically saying that African-Americans should have a Winchester rifle as kind of their pride and joy in every black home. Interestingly, in Florida, in the next legislative session, after this article comes out, Florida creates a law regulating the carry of Winchesters. And this is the first time in all of American history where a law has specifically gone after something like this. Now, it didn't ban Winchesters, but it imposed a hefty fee in order to get a permit to carry a Winchester.

And the way that the law was written basically said that even though you pay the fee and fill out all the forms and are completely capable of passing all the checks within this law, it is up to the sheriff to determine whether or not he wants to give it to you. And there's been some criticism whether or not, because it does not say race, because it no longer can say race, whether or not this would have been, you know, inherently a racist act. But it seems suspicious timing that right after she writes this article, then they decide to regulate Winchesters, which there is absolutely no precedent on that whatsoever in the entire country. So it does show that she has a lot of power in the south, even though she vacates and goes to the north. And so ultimately, all of this hardship, all this advocacy, all of this trauma doesn't stop her. And in 1893, she found the Negro Women's Club in Chicago. And the main objective of that was to educate and empower black women with skills such as first aid and firearms training. So the firearms component of it continues, even though her advocacy is much broader than that. And in 1895, she marries an attorney and journalist named Ferdinand Barnett, and he's from Chicago.

And so she ends up working for his paper for a while. And her writings ultimately get noticed by another really significant civil rights figure from this time who was a former slave, and that was Frederick Douglass. And in 1909, she helped to establish the NAACP. It's an interesting piece of history when you look at not just black American history, but then the role of the black woman in American history. And if you know anything about kind of the civil rights movement that occurs in the post World War Two period, there have been a lot of writings by black feminists from this time period where they feel like they don't really have a place within either the black movement. And in some respects, you know, the Black Panthers initially had kind of a hierarchy system against women that they ultimately ended up getting rid of.

But there was this hierarchy system. So in some respects, they didn't feel like they were equals within the black civil rights movement. And then they also didn't feel like equals within the feminist movement because it was predominantly white women and white women tended to keep the black feminists kind of at bay. And so this is something that you hear a lot about in the 1960s.

But this is also what Ida B. Wells was going through when she was fighting for women's suffrage. So during the women's suffrage movement, you often hear about white women fighting for the right to vote. And they often did exclude black women from this conversation because they felt that it would detract from the movement.

And so Ida B. Wells, like in all other circumstances not to be deterred, she ends up creating the Negro Women's Club because she feels like it's an opportunity also for black women to be able to participate in what would have been kind of a white led social club. And so she was trying to give them the ability to have a voice and to protest. And even it gets so crazy that at one point she goes to march in D.C. And the activists, the women's suffragettes, they actually from her state ask her and her women to march separately at the end of the parade.

And of course, she does not do that. So even though they're trying to exclude her and the women that she kind of represents, she always finds a way to kind of push herself into a much more diverse conversation and storyline. And this creation of these Negro Women's Clubs ultimately expands to other cities during her lifetime. And she helps establish a branch in Memphis, Tennessee. She does try to run for office, but that ultimately doesn't work out. And she passes away in 1931.

So this is an extraordinary story that has so many different layers. You know, if you have a woman in the post-Civil War period who has such a prominent role in a society that is very male dominated and very male controlled. But then you also have a black woman who is trying to find a place for herself within the black community, but then also the women community within the United States. And so she does so much to impact all of American society that I think to some extent it is unfortunate to lose such an important part to her life, which is her self-defense advocacy. And it may not be the most popular part of her advocacy when you talk about the politics behind firearms today.

But I think in order to understand her story, but then also the history of regulation and African-American activism, you can't separate that from the early days of self-defense advocacy. And a terrific job on the production, editing and storytelling by our own Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Ashley Lebinski, our frequent contributor here at Our American Stories and co-host of Discovery Channel's Master of Arms, the former curator in charge of the Cody Firearms Museum and co-founder of the University of Wyoming College of Law's Firearms Research Center. And in the end, Ashley is just a terrific historian on this important aspect and dimension of American life and American culture. And Ida B. Wells understood the importance of this fight. I once heard Condoleezza Rice share a story that was very similar to her neighborhood and the degree at which they felt safer because her dad and the dads in the neighborhood owned firearms to protect them from the marauders called the KKK, who were terrorizing neighborhoods, but not hers. The story of Ida B.

Wells here on Our American Stories. With so many streaming devices out there today, what sets Roku apart? Roku players are made for one thing, to get you the entertainment you want quick and easy. That means a simple home screen with your favorites front and center, channels like iHeartRadio that launch in a snap and curated selections of TV for when you only sort of know what to watch. Not to mention all the free TV you can stream, including over 300 free live channels on the Roku channel. Find the perfect Roku player for you today at

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-09-04 04:41:44 / 2023-09-04 04:50:57 / 9

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