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  • Public Pragmatism:Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells on Lynching
  • Maurice Hamington

Violence is the most ineffectual method of dealing with crime, the most preposterous attempt to inculcate lessons of self control. A community has a right to protect itself from the criminal . . . but when it attempts revenge, when it persuades itself that exhibitions of cruelty result in reform, it shows itself ignorant of all the teachings of history.

—Jane Addams, January 1901, New York Independent

Among many thousand editorial clippings I have received in the past five years, ninety-five per cent discuss the question upon the presumption that lynching are the desperate effort of the Southern people to protect their women from black monsters.

—Ida B. Wells, May 1901, New York Independent

While Jane Addams's work at Hull-House and her national efforts directed toward peace and suffrage have received a great deal of attention, her writing on matters of race are less often considered. When Addams's analysis of race is discussed, the reviews are often mixed.1 Addams, like many important theorists, was simultaneously ahead of her time and very much of her time. While this paper will not address her overall philosophy of race and diversity, it will discuss a largely forgotten public exchange between Addams and the well-known antilynching activist, Ida B. Wells. Addams wrote an antilynching piece for the New York Independent in January 1901 and by May of the same year, Wells authored a response that applauded many of Addams's contentions but also pointed out a major flaw: the presumed criminal acts of black men that prompted the lynching. I will begin with a brief background of Wells and her relationship with Addams. Given the familiarity of the readers of JSP with Addams's background, I will forego rehashing her biography. The arguments against lynching laid out by Addams in "Respect for Law" will be presented as well as the retort from Wells in "Lynching and the Excuse for It." I will suggest that this exchange reveals how Addams, despite providing many significant insights into [End Page 167] the nature of oppression, violates her own feminist pragmatist method of inquiry, resulting in the perpetuation of a racist myth.

Ida B. Wells

For those who accuse Addams of implicit racism, her relationship with Ida B. Wells stands as a significant point to the contrary. Addams and Wells had dissimilar backgrounds and temperaments, and disagreed on some specific issues of common concern, but their shared commitment to social justice created a long-term positive working relationship.

Wells's life was filled with tragedy and prejudice that served to motivate her philosophy and activism. Wells was born a mere two years after Addams (in 1862) but the upbringing of the two could not have been more different. Wells's parents were slaves in rural Mississippi who eventually were emancipated and became financially independent. When Wells was sixteen years old her mother and father died of yellow fever, leaving Wells to fend not only for herself but for her five surviving siblings as well. In the face of this tragedy, Wells's religious convictions blossomed. She also found refuge and a purpose in life through her thirst for righteousness. In the face of injustice, Wells developed a fiery temper that sometimes got her in trouble.

A turning point in Wells's life came in 1892 with the lynching of three of her acquaintances in Memphis. Wells had been the owner of the only black newspaper in the city, The Memphis Free Speech. In a series of editorials, she demanded justice for the lynching. Another local paper alleged that the three shopkeepers were lynched because they raped a white woman. Wells refuted this lie. A mob formed that considered lynching her, but Wells was spared because she was out of town at the time. The angry rabble instead destroyed the building where her newspaper was housed and it ceased operation. From then on Wells was a fierce antilynching activist who wrote articles and books as well as delivered speeches to whatever audience would listen in order to rebut the pervasive myth that black men were rapists. "I found that in order to justify these...


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