Church Communication Hero: Ida B. Wells

Church Communication Hero: Ida B. Wells

April 23, 2018 by

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” -Ida B. Wells, 1862-1931

Ida B. Wells was a journalist and social crusader. Her writing cast the harsh light of truth on the practice of Southern lynching, where white mobs would hang and kill black men based on mere accusation.

Born into slavery in Mississippi just months before the Emancipation Proclamation, Wells once refused to give up her seat on a segregated train car. She helped found the civil rights movement and often faced death threats for challenging racism and segregation in her writing. One of her editorials incited a white mob to destroy the offices of the newspaper that published her writing.

She was bold in the face of injustice, once crying out like the prophets of old: “O God, is there no… justice in this land for us?”

Ida B. Wells is a civil rights hero and offers lessons for us as church communicators.

Research Into Lynching

Extrajudicial killings, known as lynching, spiked in the U.S. between the 1890 and 1930. It primarily happened in the South with black men and women as the victims (though it did happen across the U.S. and was not restricted by race). Today the Equal Justice Initiative has a project exploring lynching in America, including a detailed map.

Popular conception at the time held that black men often raped white women, thus creating a sort of justification—however indefensible—for the murders. Police and elected officials turned a blind eye to lynchings. Crowds would gather to cheer on the brutal murders, going so far as to commemorate the atrocities by smiling for photographs.

Ida B. Wells herself believed the common wisdom: “Although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order…it was the terrible crime of rape [that] led to the lynching; [and] that perhaps…the mob was justified in taking his life.”

But then, prompted by her friend’s lynching, she did the research.

Wells’ investigation showed that these black men were often lynched for minor infractions such as failing to pay debts, not giving way to whites, and public drunkenness. She found little basis for the frequent “justification” that black men were lynched because they raped or otherwise attacked white women.

After thoroughly researching alleged rape cases, she concluded that white Southerners often cried rape to disguise their real reasons for lynching—stopping black economic progress and relegating blacks to a second-class status. Lynching was racial terrorism, designed to ensure white supremacy.

“If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service.”

Wells’ work was crucial in putting a public spotlight on this racial terrorism. She helped launch the NAACP and build the foundation for the civil rights movement, which would not see broad success until nearly three decades after her death.

What Churches Can Learn

There are a lot of lessons to be gleaned from the life of Ida B. Wells. She started work as a teacher at the age of 14 after her parents died in order to keep her siblings together. She would later lose a teaching job for criticizing racial injustices. And in an age of “fake news,” we can surely appreciate her dedication to the truth:

“The facts have been so distorted that the people in the North and elsewhere do not realize the extent of the lynchings in South.”

But here are four specific areas where churches can learn from Ida B. Wells:

1. Look Around

Wells began her investigation after the lynching of her friend, Thomas Moss. She had a personal stake in the issue. She saw what was happening in her life, right there in her community, and she got involved. She didn’t wring her hands and cast blame or shrug her shoulders at the futility of it all. She dove into the issue and searched for a solution.

What’s happening around your church? What are the issues that matter in your local community where you can have a voice? Look around and see how you can make a difference where you are.

2. Do Your Research

Everyone has a hunch about why attendance is up or down, why the offering plate is light, or any other data-driven issue in the church. But you can’t rely on common perception. You have to do the research. Examine the data. Figure out what’s actually happening. You can’t rely on your gut (because it’s often wrong) or just dismiss the reality.

3. Narrow Your Focus

Wells could have written about anything. But she narrowly focused the efforts of her investigative journalism and in so doing made great progress. What could your church do if you focused on a specific topic? Many churches do a lot of good things, but they don’t often accomplish anything great. Sometimes we need to quit the good so we can focus on the great.

4. Content

Wells took a relatively unknown and misunderstood topic and made painfully clear the terrorism happening across the U.S. She did it by telling stories, doing research, and sharing content. Wells wrote articles, editorials, and pamphlets. Those words changed hearts and minds.

OK, your bulletin announcements are a far cry from a lynching pamphlet, but we’re sharing a message of even greater importance. When your church shares consistent, effective content about a powerful message, it will have an impact.

Church Communication Hero

Wells combined these four tactics and became the leading crusader against lynching. If your church wants to make an impact, Ida B. Wells left a powerful blueprint for how to do it.


Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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