Yesterday’s dedication ceremony for Ida B. Wells Street happened just as I got an advanced reader’s copy of “Seen & Unseen: Technology, Social Media, and the Fight for Racial Justice” by Marc Lamont Hill and Todd Brewster.
The book explores how technology, particularly visual media, has helped shift the way we think about race and helped the effort to push us closer to a more just society.
Although the book is about recent events such as the killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and the harassment of Christian Cooper, it takes a historical look at bearing witness, pulling in Wells.
With her diligent writings on lynching, Wells, the authors note, changed the conversation on lynching. That brutality was thought by many to be an aberrant punishment — something that happened when people snapped, horrified by an attack on a white woman. With her reporting, Wells proved lynching widespread and she argued that “a concession of the right to lynch a man for a certain crime, not only concedes the right to lynch any person for any crime, but (so frequently is the cry of rape now raised) it is in a fair way to stamp us a race of rapists and desperadoes.”
Wells, they write, paid attention to the “spectacle” of death; how it was entertainment and that raised awareness of lynching. She published photographs and drawings of the gruesome scenes. She used the tools of her time.
More critically, the authors tie Wells’ story to that of George Floyd, whose murder certainly could be called a lynching and was captured by Darnella Frazier, another woman using the tools of her time, allowing us to see the brutality of the event, thought by some to be atypical.
Thinking about all of this made me think about how often I hear the term “lynching.” It used to feel like a term of the past. I remember how shocking it sounded when at his confirmation hearings, Clarence Thomas spoke of a “high-tech lynching,” a phrase he knew, as a Black southerner, would shake his intended audience.
Words, though, are often softened to imply progress. That’s one reason I find Hill and Brewster’s analysis of Wells so necessary. We have to note the continuous loop of history and the acts of resistance against power we have found to make change.
MLK50 has noted the singular place having a street named for Wells will have. But what’s equally important is all her life story holds. In that way, the Ida B. Wells Street sign not only indicates where we are, but also where we’ve been and where we need to go next.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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