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Killing the Messenger: Ida Wells-Barnett Protests a Postmaster’s Murder in 1898

The rising tide of lynchings of African Americans across the South launched a national anti-lynching crusade, led by Memphis, Tennessee, newspaper editor Ida Wells-Barnett, an outspoken advocate for the area’s African-American citizens. As the leader of the national anti-lynching movement, Wells-Barnett joined a group of Illinois congressmen who visited the White House in March, 1898, to protest the murder of the newly-appointed Lake City, South Carolina Postmaster Baker, who was black. Wells-Barnett penned this petition to President William McKinley to urge punishment of those responsible for shooting.

Mr. President, the colored citizens of this country in general, and Chicago in particular, desire to respectfully urge that some action be taken by you as chief magistrate of this great nation, first for the apprehension and punishment of the lynchers of Postmaster Baker, of Lake City, S.C.; second, we ask indemnity for the widow and children, both for the murder of the husband and father, and for injuries sustained by themselves; third, we most earnestly desire that national legislation be enacted for the suppression of the national crime of lynching.

For nearly twenty years lynching crimes, which stand side by side with Armenian and Cuban outrages, have been committed and permitted by this Christian nation. Nowhere in the civilized world save the United States of America do men, possessing all civil and political power, go out in bands of 50 and 5,000 to hunt down, shoot, hang or burn to death a single individual, unarmed and absolutely powerless. Statistics show that nearly 10,000 American citizens have been lynched in the past 20 years. To our appeals for justice the stereotyped reply has been that the government could not interfere in a state matter. Postmaster Baker’s case was a federal matter, pure and simple. He died at his post of duty in defense of his country’s honor, as truly as did ever a soldier on the field of battle. We refuse to believe this country, so powerful to defend its citizens abroad, is unable to protect its citizens at home. Italy and China have been indemnified by this government for the lynching of their citizens. We ask that the government do as much for its own.

Source: Cleveland Gazette, 9 April 1898. Reprinted in Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, 2, (The Citadel Press: New York, 1970), 798.

See Also:"Their Own Hotheadedness": Senator Benjamin R."Pitchfork Ben" Tillman Justifies Violence Against Southern Blacks