In my decades of journalism heard on public radio around the U.S., I naturally admire reporters who tell the truth (and, as we’re witnessing today in Russia and Ukraine, this sometimes places them in grave personal danger).
Never has the principle been more urgent than in our current age of disinformation, when some political leaders routinely communicate in Orwellian doublespeak.
Part of this awareness was developed when, at age 16, NPR allowed me to report on the espionage trial of Daniel Ellsberg and his colleague Anthony Russo from the U.S. district courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. The two defendants had collaborated on a secret Pentagon study documenting the history of tragic policy mistakes – and deliberate deceptions – by the U.S. government during the war in Vietnam.
The defendants hoped to galvanize sentiment against a bloody war that ultimately claimed millions of lives.
They sought to accomplish this by conveying what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, the Washington Post and numerous other publications, which dared to publish them, despite legal jeopardy. (The story was dramatized in The Post, a 2017 thriller starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, which was nominated for multiple Academy Awards.) Ellsberg himself faced up to 115 years in jail.
Ultimately the case ended in 1973 when the Judge Matthew Byrne declared a mistrial.
My own work since, which has concentrated on many dimensions of the human spiritual journey, entailed little personal peril. But I have long ap-preciated the heroism of journalists who bring the truth to light – as an essential function of maintaining our democracy.
And so the remarkable story of Ida B. Wells, which we presented on Humankind in a 2019 public radio documentary, deserves special attention at this time when we observe Juneteenth. In 2021 it became a federal holiday to honor the enslaved Americans who were emancipated by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
Ida Wells was born to enslaved parents on a plantation at Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862 as the U.S. Civil War raged. Her father, James Wells, a carpenter, became politically active as a freedman in central Mississippi during Reconstruction – a role model for his daughter’s budding social consciousness. James and his friends could not read (it was actually illegal for enslaved people to become literate), so after the war it fell to Ida to read newspapers aloud to these adults, who would gather to listen, in their hunger for knowledge about the world around them.
Thus the power of journalism was imprinted on young Ida B. Wells. Although quite unusual at that time for any woman, let alone an African American woman, she embarked on a career as journalist. (In 2020, 89 years after her death in Chicago, to which she resettled, Ida B. Well was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.)
In the years following the liberation of four million black people in the United States, the crime of lynching became more widespread in the American south, but also elsewhere (peaking in the late 1800s, but continuing well into the 20th century). These were acts of white supremacist domestic terrorism intended to stifle African Americans who sought to exercise their constitutional right to vote and to improve their economic circumstances.
Ida Wells felt called to document this monstrous practice – even as many Americans were in denial about it – and to publish her reportage. By age 29, Ida became part-owner of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper, which would reach a post-bellum audience of black readers.
“She’s like about five feet tall,” commented Paula Giddings, professor emerita of Africana Studies at Smith College and author of Ida: A Sword Among Lions, the major biography of Ida B. Wells. “She’s a tiny woman. And she starts just traveling alone. She’s traveling to the sites of lynchings, she’s interviewing eyewitnesses, she begins to put together statistics.”
Wells chronicled the horrors of hangings, burnings and other acts of violence that shocked the conscience. Many of these lynchings used a pretext that black men had abused white women.
But as told to me by celebrated Yale historian David Blight: “We now know, from deep study of this from the 1880s on through into the early 20th cen-tury, that the vast, vast majority of the claims of rape, or sexual abuse, harassment – we’d use a term like harassment today – made against black men, hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of black men, from the 1880s into the early 20th century were fabrications.”
Said attorney Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (whose bold civil rights advocacy was depicted in the 2019 film, Just Mercy): “She was going to identify all the ways in which black people, women and men, were being victimized, were being terrorized. She spoke to the complacency of government, and law enforcement. She spoke to the abdication of the rule of law and really tried to compel people to accept, to recognize their responsibility in this crisis. For that she was, obviously, targeted, and herself the object of a lot of threat, and menace.”
But Ida Wells stood her ground. She maintained a mix of public interest journalism and political activism, despite the evident hazards of shining a spotlight on the forces of violence.
A similar commitment to truth-telling empowered the New York Times and Washington Post during Vietnam, and is on display among the brave journalists standing up today in Ukraine to tyranny in Russia.
David Freudberg is the host and executive producer of Humankind on Public Radio. Listen to “Ida B. Wells’ Battle to Uncover the Truth.”