“I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I said.”
These words, credited to journalist and suffragist Ida B. Wells, underscore the courage of a woman who decided to make it her mission to expose racial injustices, even if it meant losing her life.
Telling the truth, especially when marred with injustice and inequality, is no easy feat.
For Wells, who was born into slavery during the Civil War, the price to pay for revealing such discrimination could be fatal.
Still, she charged on, eventually launching an anti-lynching crusade, reporting on the gruesome acts that she considered “barbaric practice of Whites in the South used to intimidate and oppress African Americans who created economic and political competition.”
The cause was especially personal for Wells, whose friend, Memphis business owner Thomas Moss, and two other Black men were lynched by a mob of White men.
For local Black journalists, the connection to Wells is striking, serving as a reminder of the significance of telling the stories of the racially and economically disadvantaged in the city Wells called home for 16 years.
“Knowing that a Black woman traveled the same path I’m on – under much more dangerous circumstances – encourages me to persevere even when the going gets tough,” said Wendi Thomas, founding editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a non-profit digital news site.
“She famously said: ‘The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,’” Thomas pointed out. “That’s what the team at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism tries to do every day with our focus on poverty, power and policy – shed light on the ways systems and institutions make it hard for people to get ahead.”
Thomas and her team of journalists have covered hard-hitting, sometimes controversial stories that expose large corporations and conglomerate predatory practices. Last year, Thomas won a Selden Ring Award for her work on “Profiting from the Poor,” an investigative series cited for revealing Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare’s debt collection practices against the poor.
“Our stories need to be told,” said Omer Yusuf, a local digital news journalist, who wrote about Wells last May after it was announced that she would receive a posthumous Pulitzer.
“Writing about her was one of the most humbling experiences. She started her career here in Memphis; and you can’t help but recall all the struggles she went through; but she was just so brave. As a journalist you want to live up to that and continue her legacy.”
Wells eventually left Memphis due to excessive death threats. She moved to Chicago, but not before leaving her indelible mark on the city.
Kelli Cook, a local television news reporter, who also serves as the President of the Memphis chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, said the history of Ida B. Wells and Memphis is too important for Black journalists to ignore.
“I tell all new journalists that come to Memphis that they should visit the National Civil Rights Museum and learn about the history of Memphis,” said Cook. “When you read the story of Memphis – Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Hooks and others who have come through our city – it speaks to the struggles we have now.”
Many journalists agree that the stories of Black people in Memphis – past and present – are quite complex and need to be told.
The Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., who sits on the board of directors for Best Media Properties, the parent company of The New Tri-State Defender, has a long connection with the newspaper, Memphis’ longest continuously-published Black-owned publication.
“I remember as a young boy when I was given the opportunity to deliver the Tri-State Defender,” Gray said. “That was my first introduction to business and the Black Press.”
Gray, a renowned local civil rights activist, has seen The New Tri-State Defender grow and shift with the times, noting that the publication’s purpose has always remained the same: to tell the stories of Black people in Memphis.
“Our stories are too important for us not to tell them,” he said. “If we don’t tell our stories, often times the validity and authenticity will be left unknown.”
Yusuf agreed, pointing to the distrust some members in the Black community have with so-called mainstream media.
“Black journalists usually have the knowledge and the respect; we are in those communities – they are our friends, our family and our neighbors,” Yusuf said. “When you have others telling those stories, that’s when you often times have instances of miscommunication or narratives that feed stereotypes.”
The Black Press has long been known as a form of activism, dating back to the early 1800s, when the first African-American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was published.
Within just a few years of its inception, other Black newspapers across the country were created, exposing issues of voter suppression and Jim Crow laws.
The Black Press became one of the main forms of resistance among African Americans.
Wells was the co-owner of two Memphis-based publications: The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight.
“Her history with Memphis has to be recognized. She was run out of town and we want to bring her back,” Gray said.
He is a part of a group of local leaders known as the Memphis Memorial Committee working to get a life-size statue of Wells erected on Beale Street. That memorial is set to be placed later this year.
The statue is more than an overdue memorialization of Wells, the audacious journalist, suffragist and advocate.
It’s also a reminder, as a journalist, to carry out Wells legacy by doing what she once recommended: Right the wrongs by turning the light of truth upon them.