Depending on whom you ask these days, journalists are:
a) The stuff of legend (see: shoe-throwing folk heroes)
b) Obsolete (see: Jon Stewart’s recent “Daily Show” joke, “What’s black and white and totally over? Newspapers.”)
c) On the ropes (see: the looming local landscape)
It was during his research for “Lynching” that Dray became acquainted with the work of Wells, a former slave from Mississippi who read the newspaper to her parents at night and ultimately became a school teacher, activist, and reporter for the independent paper Free Speech. When she reported on lynchings, the Free Speech offices were destroyed. She was offered a job at the New York Age, and continued her work there. Her first article on lynchings was deemed a “revelation” by none other than Frederick Douglass, and that copy of the Age sold more than 10,000 copies in New York.
As Dray concludes, “Ida had not set out to become a crusader, but the article in the Age made her just that. She received invitations from across the country to speak about lynching. Politicians, ministers, and other leaders wanted to know more about the problem and how they could help. And as she continued to writer articles and speak out, support for her cause grew. Her New York Age article appeared in 1892. By her death in 1931, lynching had nearly come to an end.”
Dray dedicates the book to the great civil rights songwriter Odetta, who died earlier this month. At this moment in history, when reporters are writing — seemingly for the first time — about the White House having been built by slaves and the first African-American president about to take office, “Ida B. Wells” is a good reminder of the bloody legacy this country was founded on, and a good gift for budding crusading journalists, should any still exist.