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Reviewed by:
  • To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells
  • Jeannette Eileen Jones
To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells. By Mia Bay. New York: Hill and Wang. 2009.

Meticulously researched and written in a lively and engaging style, Mia Bay's intellectual biography of Ida B. Wells is a much-needed and welcome addition to the extant scholarly literature on the activist once declared "the most widely known woman of her race in the world" (3). Taking up her own critique of Patricia Schechter's seminal 2001 book on Wells, Bay departs from conventional treatments of Wells as a Progressive reformer, offering the reader an analysis of the leader that not only uncovers the "puzzle of her personality," but also accounts for her "militant" activism. Bay presents a nuanced reading of the politics of racial uplift to argue convincingly that Wells "drew on forms of antebellum politics that survived the Civil War," most notably, the "tradition of noisy public protest" of abolitionists (10-11) that placed her at odds with early twentieth century black leaders, clubwomen, activists, and institutions more interested in cultivating white allies than in engaging "radical" activism.

Born a slave in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells was reared by two parents who instilled "race pride," Christian values, and the importance of education in their [End Page 183] children. At age sixteen, Ida was forced to become an adult when her parents died of yellow fever. To provide for herself and her five siblings she worked as a teacher and a freelance writer/journalist, eventually relocating to Memphis, Tennessee. A witness to the successes of Radical Reconstruction, Wells resented Southern "Redemption" and Jim Crow's circumscription of black freedom, a resentment that inspired her two failed anti-discrimination railroad lawsuits. Yet, as Bay notes, it was her public reaction to the lynching of her friend Thomas Moss and subsequent exile from Memphis that thrust Wells unto the national and international stage. A relentless crusader, Wells exposed the "racial fictions" used to justify racial terror aimed at blacks. She revealed that lynching "was not about rape or even sex; it was about power" (122). Bay's riveting narrative of Wells' crusade that took her from Memphis to London lays bare the "lasting impact" she had on transatlantic reform.

Perhaps the most novel contribution of Bay's biography is its depiction of Wells as the "living link between the abolitionist tradition...and the twentieth century civil rights activism of the NAACP" (318). Above all else, Wells' uncompromising dedication to racial justice inherited from her parents undergirded her commitment to antilynching, equal suffrage, and desegregation. Her "spirited and often impulsive activism" (295) associated with "old-fashioned radicals" (321) alienated her from organizations such as the NAACP (which she co-founded), NACW, Afro-American League, and the Negro Fellowship League. Ironically, Wells "was written out of the black protest tradition by a new generation of reformers who appropriated her ideas while rejecting her leadership" (318).

Bay's Wells is an extraordinary and complex leader, who dared "to tell the truth freely" in an era when the majority of African Americans could not.

Jeannette Eileen Jones
University of Nebraska, Lincoln


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pp. 183-184
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