Ida B. Wells Became the Last Hope for 12 Men Convicted of False Charges During Elaine, Ark. MassacreHistorians in the News
tags: racism, African American history, lynching, Ida B. Wells, Red Summer, Elaine Massacre
Throughout the Red Summer of 1919 and beyond, no journalist did more to chronicle the lynchings and other forms of terror inflicted on Black people than Ida B Wells-Barnett. From East St Louis, Illinois, to Elaine, Arkansas, her pen was an instrument for justice.
The 12 Black men had been tortured, smothered with rags soaked in chemicals, strapped to electric chairs, beaten with whips by white mobs trying to wring “confessions” out of them. The men had been arrested after the Elaine Massacre, during the Red Summer of 1919, when white mobs “with blood in their eyes” descended on the cotton fields of Elaine, Arkansas, killing more than 800 Black people.
The men, who had come to be called “The Elaine 12”, had been unfairly rounded up, then falsely convicted after a sham six-minute trial in Helena, Arkansas. Now, they sat on death row for crimes they did not commit.
They had one last hope.
Perhaps, Ida B Wells-Barnett, a Black investigative journalist known for her utter fearlessness in her “crusade for justice” for her people, could save them. Perhaps this woman, who had once written “if it were possible”, she, “would gather my race in my arms and fly away with them,” had that kind of power to fight a “tide of hatred”.
Did Wells, an unflinching woman who had traveled the country to investigate the ruthless barbarity of white mobs in other lynchings and massacres, have that much power to save these Black men on death row in Arkansas?
One of the old Black men believed she did.
“Dear Mrs. Wells-Barnett,” he wrote. “This is one of the 12 mens which is sentenced to death speaking to you on this day and thanking you for your grate speech you made throughout the country in the Chicago Defender paper. So I am thanking you to the very highest hope you will do all you can for your collord race. Because we are innercent men, we Negroes. So I thank God that thro you, our Negroes are looking into this truble, and thank the city of Chicago for what it did to start things and hopen to hear from you all soon.”
The letter was dated 30 December 1919 with a date line of Little Rock, Arkansas. It was sent to Wells three months after the Elaine Massacre.
Wells heard the desperation in the letter and, without hesitation, took a train from Chicago, heading into the deep south, which had once threatened her life and warned her never to return.
“It was my first return to the South since I had been banished thirty years before,” she later wrote.
The letter from the Black men on death row, Wells wrote, was “a cry from Macedonia”.
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