Ida on the Anniversary of Rosa

Ida B. Wells, an African-American native of Holly Springs, Mississippi, refused to give up her seat on a train on May 4, 1884, only to be dragged off by white men. Seven full decades prior to that event in Alabama on the Montgomery bus which made Rosa Parks into an icon.

Why have most people heard about Rosa, while many less are blessed with any knowledge whatsoever about Ida?

The answer has to come from the back of the activist bus… or the designated part of the train we’re on; or should I say treadmill? Meaning, most activists are engaged along cookie cutter lines, thinking and doing as per the prescribed formulas provided by the powers that be. With the comparison/contrast I’m citing readers should note that it doesn’t serve the purposes of the powers that be to underscore how long the resistance has been going on.

After a lynch mob killed two of her friends, Ida started a crusade against lynching and was forced to flee Memphis. She later helped co-found the NAACP. The general public knows that history to some degree — how long ago lynching was a common fear among blacks, for instance — but with law enforcement now offing black youngsters with institutional protection, it’s better to bury that history as much as possible. So that the links aren’t too readily noticeable. So that the fact that there’s been no real break in the horrific historical momentum is not spotlighted,

What we’ve ended up with to date is a general take that there once was slavery, things improved, but further reform was needed, and by December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks prevailed, stirring the passions of one and all in communities of color, and encouraging whites to join hands in solidarity… all of which culminated in what we know as the Civil Rights Era.

A heroine for all time. Leading us to another leader of sorts, Dr. Martin Luther King. All indebted — it is noted in occasional articles and speeches and books (read by too few) — to the vague contributions of… some unfamiliar figures. The emphasis always on the approved icons — Ida was far more radical in far more disturbing times! — and never on the supporters, without whom the highly publicized figureheads couldn’t have accomplished much at all; the aspect of movement in solidarity is always undermined to some extent by having us focus on select high profile individuals.

This December 1st, the 61st anniversary of Rosa’s stand, perhaps we should strike up the band for Ida in conversation with our fellow activists. Just to make sure that they’re not on any treadmill designed by those they oppose.

Rachel Olivia O'Connor is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at Read other articles by Rachel.