Henry David Thoreau, in his essay, civil disobedience, argues that when a person is not in comfort with the government, then we have a right as humans to act against its injustice. Thoreau supports his argument by first stating that unjust laws exist and that we shall endeavor to amend them instead of being content to obey them. His purpose is to inform the reader about the way they are being mistreated by government and to persuade them to act against their injustices in a civil disobedient way inn order to see the government acting up more rapidly and systematically.
Thoreau establishes a critical and righteous tone for those who are against the standing government and are seeking for change. Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience influenced many political leaders, among these, Ida B. Wells, who fought against racial injustice and segregation. Racism was crucial during the 20th century, leading to the use of passive resistance by wells in order to abolish these injustices.
Henry David Thoreau was an intellectual American philosopher who exerted an enduring influence on American thought.
He was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, where he wrote various essays, among these A Plea for Captain John Brown, and Civil Disobedience. Thoreau believed strongly in transcendentalism, the idea that knowledge comes through intuition instead of logic or the senses. A transcendentalist person is one that can trust their selves to be their own authority on what is right. On his essay Civil Disobedience, Thoreau heartedly accepted “that government is best which governs least” (Thoreau 1).
He believes that the standing government is very unjust, and we should follow our consciences and let it govern and not the government itself. In his writings, Thoreau encourages his audience to stand up for their rights, stating that it was not necessary to use violence to promote views and attain the most expedient government he wished for. Thoreau always pursued his beliefs, even when consequences would follow from his civil disobedience actions.
He was a dedicated supporter of this passive resistance method of bringing about change, and his tactics were later on used by other memorable figures, among these Ida B. Wells. The formal public record of lynchings In the United States shows that, during the post-civil war era, mob violence against African Americans steadily increased, “with the first peak occurring in 1892”, the year Ida B. Wells was born. Ida B. Wells was an anti-lynching crusader, journalist, suffragist and speaker who fought for racial equality and civil rights (Royster 10). She was born a slave in Mississippi, and was raised facing the injustices that her parents and others around her as slaves had to go through. Seeing her mother being constantly beaten and whipped as a slave, was one of the many factors that contributed to her fiery temper that often got her into trouble as a child. The greatest crisis that she faced during her earlier years was the death of both of her parents and a sibling after a yellow fever epidemic struck her town in 1878. At the age of 16 years old, emblematic of the righteousness and responsibility that characterized her life, Wells decided to make herself look older by wearing bigger clothes and makeup.
By doing this, she achieved to get a teaching job in order to support her siblings financially and to prevent them from being put into different homes. She managed to continue her education by attending a near-by Rust College and later on focusing on her career as a journalist. At the age of 32, Wells married Frederick Douglass and took part in his newspaper: Free Speech. Ida B. Wells became a leading community activist through a sequence of pivotal events. Her fight for racial justice using civil disobedience began in 1884, when she was asked by the conductor of the train she boarded to give up her seat to a white man. The conductor demanded her to move to the Jim Crow section, but Wells refused, replying furiously that it was an “infringement of her rights and insult to her person” (Royster 17). As a result of her disobedience, she was forcefully removed from the train that led her to hire an attorney in order to sue to the railroad. Wells won the case, but it did not last long when the railroad company appealed to the Supreme Court and the court’s ruling was reversed.
From this moment forward, Wells worked tirelessly to overturn the injustices against her race. A few years later Wells faced another of her many struggles when three of her closest friends were “found shot to pieces in a field… “by hands unknown” (Royster 2) The men owned a People’s Grocery Store, which was seen as competition to the white man who owned a similar grocery store just across the street. The stores were located in an area that was beyond the Memphis city limits and police protection. Because of this, the culpable of this occurrence was able to get away with such an atrocity, and this opened the eyes of Wells as to what lynching really was. She realized that it was no more than an act of terror perpetrated against her race in order to maintain power and control instead of a simple punishment for crimes. Wells felt the obligation to do something about this and decided to organize successful national conventions, churches, campaigns, and antilynching rallies where she was able to spread her word in wanting to “educate the white people out of their 250 years of slave history” (Harris 6).
Although her speeches were very powerful, they were not as prominent as her writings which accomplished significant changes for her race. With the intention to get her word out, not only to her own country but also to other parts of the world, Ida B. Wells used a writing civil disobedient tactic which was used previously by Thoreau. This involved journalism to inform her audience of the injustices which surrounded them. One of the most influential writings written by Wells, was her instant response to such acts of violence in Memphis, writing editorials that encouraged African Americans to leave the city. She wrote in The Free Speech: “Save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor gives us fair trial in the courts, but takes is out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons”. And just as Wells protested to do, hundreds of African Americans begun leaving the city and moving north, where they would find better treatment. She wrote in newspapers, pamphlets, essays, and many other types of writing. She was also what we might call today an investigative journalist.
Typically, she would identify a problem, collect data that served to enlighten and support her take on the issue and then share her findings to her readers. She collected reports showing the discrimination against African Americans regarding lynchings. According to her findings, more than 4,000 black Americans were reported lynched, and only about 700 white Americans. This showed how the majority of the time, it was the blacks who were accused of the casualty even after having enough evidence to be proven innocent. Ida B. Wells found out during her research that in most cases of rape, unlike the myth that white woman were faultless abused by black men, most liaisons between these women and black men were consensual. Another source of data collection was photography. Lynching Photography in America, according to Wells “stands apart as the most recognizable and effective antilynching crusader in history” (Harris 1).
Through all of these different techniques used by Wells, she invited and helped her readers to pay attention to the facts, unrevealing the horrifying injustices that were made by the white Americans. These publishing’s defending her own race against the racist whites caused various problems for Wells that later on had a weighty effect on her life. In 1859, Thoreau wrote about the lack of sympathy and admiration towards John Brown, a man who was hung after trying to instigate a major slave rebellion in the South, and giving his life to the oppressed. John Brown’s purpose was to free all the slaves and help them win their freedom and independence. According to Thoreau, John Brown never got the recognition that he deserved for his actions, and alike John Brown, Ida B. Wells was a character in history who was also unappreciated for her hard work and achievements. Wells shared many similarities with not only John Brown, but also Thoreau. She used several tactics used previously by Thoreau in order to spread her word out. She also used his idea of civil disobedience to fight the injustices towards her own race.
Never did Ida B. Wells use any violence to win her fight, similar to Thoreau, she used mostly writing as a way to inform her audience. On his essay, Civil Disobedience, Thoreau states and questions that “Unjust law exists; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them?”(Thoreau 4). This is something that Wells was very aware of and agreed on. Both Wells and Thoreau knew that the law was vey unjust to its minority and it is something that they were both willing to fight against, using passive resistance in order to make a change. Through civil disobedience, Ida B. Wells and Henry David Thoreau refused to obey certain laws for the purpose of influencing government policy. Ida B. Wells was an African American woman who fought against discrimination and racist injustices, and today she is remembered as “a social pioneer, a woman of many first-in journalism and civil rights” (Greaves).
She fought her battle by using various different methods which involved writing, public speeches, and collecting data as evidence of the maltreatment against her race. These strategies were previously used by Thoreau, an abolitionist and the author of civil disobedience. In his essay, A Plea for Captain John Brown, Thoreau acknowledges the heroic actions of John Brown and is very discontented with the lack of admiration that he receives. This issue was also presented with Ida B. Wells, when according to many authors, she did not get the credit and recognition she deserved for her successes attained. Both Ida B. Wells, as well as Captain John Brown, had to later on pay for the consequences of their decisions by not following governmental laws and acting from conscience rather than the edicts of the unjust laws.
“Ida B. Wells-Barnett(1862-1931) and Her Passion for Justice, Black Women, African American Women, Sufferage, Women’s Movement, Civil Rights Leaders.” Ida B. Wells-Barnett(1862-1931) and Her Passion for Justice, Black Women, African American Women, Sufferage, Women’s Movement, Civil Rights Leaders. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2014. “Ida B.Wells-Barnett and her passion for Justice” is a secondary source written by Lee P. Baker in April 1996. Lee P. Baker is a cultural anthropologist, author and member of the Buke University. This article was published by the Oxford press as an educational website. Being a professor of also African-American studies, we can rely on the credibility of Lee D. Bakers work.
She also used Vicent P. Franklin, the author of “New Perspective on Black educational History” as one of her sources, which includes primary excerpts written by Ida. B Wells. This article is created for an academic audience, most likely for those researching for an overall background on Ida B. Wells with the sole purpose of informing the reader about her achievements. This article gives basic information and is a vital source focusing on Well’s groundbreaking one woman crusade. Lee D. Baker also states Ida’s impacts on society, among these her work in organizations, campaigns, and her help in co-founding the NAACP. Ida B. Wells A Passion for Justice. Dir. William Greaves. 1989. DVD
Director William Greaves published the film “Ida B. Wells a Passion for Justice” in 1989 as a documentary of Well’s life. He is a documentary filmmaker and one of the pioneers of African-American filmmaking. Not only has he produced over two hundred documentary films, but he has written and directed more than half of them. This is evidence that Greaves has a lot of experience regarding African American issues and having studied in that field, his film is very credible. In his film, he states all of the accomplishments by Ida B. Wells and how she was able to make a change on the lives of many African Americans. His intended audience is those who are seeking for detailed information regarding African American issues during Well’s time period. Harris, Clarissa Myrick. “Ida B. Wells.” Ida B. Wells. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2014. Clarissa Myrick-Harris, professor of African American studies at Morehouse College and director of South Black communities Oral History E. Morris College created this 8 page article focusing on the bravery of Ida B. Wells.
She created this secondary source article mainly for anyone looking for the impacts of Wells in society, or researching about the African American struggle against lynching. As stated in her title, Myrick-Harris created this article to give her opinion on Ida B. Wells in a well informative way and not only portray her as a hero but also admire her bravery. Although there is an obvious bias towards Wells, Clarissa Myrick-Harris does have a credible background for her writings. This is because she is an African American woman, descending from the south like her family, and is focused on African American studies, she has more knowledge about the issue regarding lynching than many other authors. In her writings, she gives the reader a sense of how Wells actions improved Black racial issues positively and she proves this through statistics of the number or lynching committed from the 20th century until now.
Thoreau, Henry David. Plea for Captain John Brown. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print. “Plea for Captain John Brown” is an essay written by Henry David Thoreau, an essayist and graduated student from Harvard University. He was a philosopher and the founder of the American transcendentalism move. He created this essay with the purpose of making the reader acknowledge and admire the actions of John Brown. In his essay he attempted to make realize that what the government was doing was wrong and with the intention for such a thing not to occur in the future. The intended audience for this particular essay by Thoreau are those who are unsatisfied by governmental decisions and those who believed that Brown was an innocent hero and should have not been hanged. Through his writing, Thoreau explains the hypocrisy of the government when taking the action of hanging John Brown and clearly states his bravery. Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience Resistance to Civil Government. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Henry David Thoreau, a graduate student from Harvard University, was the founder of the American transcendentalist move, as well as an essayist during the 1800s. He publishes many inspirational writings, among these, Civil Disobedience. Through this essay, Thoreau called for a better, improved government which would act by conscience and serve the people like it should. He argues that those who make up and work for the government are just wooden machines that are manufactured to function for only the standing government. His purpose of the essay is also to inform the people what an expedient government is like, and to encourage those who are unsatisfied with governmental decisions to act non-violently against this injustice as soon as possible. Wells-Barnett, Ida B., and Jacqueline Jones. Royster.
Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900. Boston, MA: Bedford, 1997. Print. “Southern Horrors and Other Writings” is a primary source of excerpts written by Ida B. Wells, edited with an introduction by Jacqueline Jones Royster. Royster is Dean of Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. She holds the Ivan Allen Jr. Dean’s Chair in Liberal Arts and Technology, and is also Professor of English in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture. This gives value to her credibility and therefore we can highly rely on her written parts of the book. Ida B. Wells, being an African American woman who spoke about the issues which I am researching, and being a political leader who was present at the time, is a primary source in my research, so therefore her writings are strongly credible as well. The purpose of this book was to give those who were against slavery at the time, an idea of the mistreatment that surrounded them and to persuade them to act against the injustices.
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