Why We Should Keep A Watchful Eye on American Sympathies: A Warning from Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
Stefan M. Wheelock
We have leapt headlong into a global racial reckoning. The question is: will it last? Even as the nation grapples with ways to combat a global pandemic, the outpouring of sympathy for black folk (both in the nation and globally) is producing extraordinary social changes. Who would have believed—even six months ago—that a white police officer’s murdering of a black man in Minnesota would lead to a sweeping push for reforms in law enforcement, and to what seems like the almost daily ritual of Confederate monuments being brought down? Mississippi, a state which is not particularly known for its radical strides toward racial equity, decided, in a gesture of sympathy, to remove the Confederate Flag as their state emblem, a flag long regarded by many as a symbol of America’s racist and slaveholding past. Jaw-dropping instances like these would almost lead one to believe that hell has, indeed, frozen over. But the history of racism in the United States cautions us against a naive optimism, warning us that temporary sympathies and alliances with black folk have proven to be poor substitutes for what should have be a culture built on the sturdy foundations of empathy. During periods of racial crisis in the United States, there has been considerable sympathy poured out toward black people. But empathetic stances for national and global racial justice have tended to have a relatively short-shelf life.
Justice for the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd calls the nation and the globe to adopt a radically new conception of empathy, one where the practices of compassion and the capacities to bear each other’s burdens are fused to our politics. I can appreciate Americans’ good-faith efforts to be on the right side of history. But given history’s lessons, I could not help but think that as a nation, we’ve been around sympathy’s bend before with half-satisfying results for progress.
In the last century or so, we have held up empathy as the more excellent moral posture because it asks that we leap over the chasm of our differences to proverbially “walk in another’s shoes.” As we cycle, again, through this ritual of American life, there are calls for the nation to be empathetic toward “minorities.” We have pushed for empathy, because, at some conscious level, we have recognized that Americans’ sympathies for human dignity and rights have acted mercurially. Repeatedly, we have seen sympathies for the plight of black folk crest and then wane. If sympathy and empathy denote the compassion one has for others, sympathy also denotes the “harmony of feeling” one shares with likeminded individuals. During racial crises, sympathies have, oftentimes, devolved into bigotry, partisanship, and narrowmindedness. US history is littered with examples where empathy for racial minorities waned and was then replaced by roguish sympathies for white entitlement, power, and survival. These degenerate sympathies transmogrified into racial animus and violence toward black, brown, and native communities.
The pioneering late-nineteenth-century activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, for example, perceived that this tragic cycle in American sympathies had violent consequences, and she did her level best to sound alarm bells for posterity. Born the daughter of freed slaves in 1862, Wells-Barnett would become internationally known for her investigative journalism on the antilynching movement. The Civil War ended in 1865 with the defeat of the South and the subsequent emancipation of millions of slaves. But by the time Wells-Barnett published her more extensive pieces in the 1890s on what many were calling the “lynching horror,” white Southerners had clawed back considerable power in government. The lions of the abolitionist campaign were beginning to die out and the period known as Reconstruction would be brought to an abrupt end in the early 1870s, ushering in an unprecedented wave of racial violence against black folk. White Southern terrorist organizations such as the White Liners and White Leaguers took up arms and mowed down blacks by the hundreds, stormed black homes and businesses, and bombed meeting places in order to intimidate blacks out of the vote. During the 1890s, well over a thousand people (the majority of whom were black) had been lynched between 1890 and 1900 alone, cresting in 1892 at more than two hundred killings.
The uptick in antiblack violence was the direct consequence of a decline in sympathy toward black folk. Whites lynched blacks for a variety of reasons; but they vigorously pushed the lurid claim that black men were raping white women at an alarming rate, which they believed necessitated taking the law into their own hands. Their accusations were largely baseless; but with the pretense of righteous indignation, Southern whites converted their bloodlust into a moral cause to restore white rule. Wells-Barnett would experience white backlash up close: after 1892, she fled the South after discovering that her press, The Free Speech and Headlight, had been ransacked by whites looking to lynch her for a column she wrote. In it, she publicly condemned the notion of black criminal rape as “a threadbare lie” and a thin excuse for committing acts of terror. Wells-Barnett concluded in her 1893 treatise, A Red Record that the world had accepted whites’ caricaturing of blacks in the press as brutes. White American Christians were a key demographic in the effort to win the public over to the side of the antilynching cause. But if they felt that lynching was a crime, Christians would not “by word or deed, extend sympathy or help to a race of outlaws, who might mistake their plea for justice and deem it an excuse for their continued wrongs.”
Wells-Barnett highlighted that the South’s appeals for mob rule reached far, touching elite circles of white social reform. Rousing Wells-Barnett’s ire were comments coming from the late-nineteenth-century’s foremost proponents of progressive reform, Frances Willard. Willard, like Wells-Barnett, was a leading light in what was then called the “women’s movement. As the president of the famed Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Willard advocated for women’s suffrage employing the motto, “Do Everything” which, for her, meant doing everything to both promote reform and participate in a wide array of reforms. Even more, Willard’s political platform of “home protection” was designed to raise issues around domestic violence and women’s rights. Willard, at one point, called lynching “barbaric.” But the purported need to protect white women from black predators presented the opportunity for Willard to approach the issue of lynching with caveats. In an interview with the New York Voice in 1890, Willard, a Northerner and the proud daughter of Oberlin-educated abolitionists, equivocated over whether lynching was ever permissible. Sympathizing with the plight of Southerners, Willard announced that she was “a lover of the Southern people” referring to them as “conscientious” and “kindly-intentioned toward the colored man” and she suggested that white Southern mob rule had some basis in justice because Southerners would not tolerate “dark faced mobs” who threatened civilization and order. Willard surmised that “The Anglo-Saxon race will never submit to be dominated by the Negro so long as his altitude reaches no higher than the personal liberty of the saloon, and the power of appreciating the amount of liquor that a dollar can buy” suggesting that there would be a violent backlash should blacks act on what presumably was their lawlessness. What infuriated Wells-Barnett was Willard’s willingness to provide lynching with moral cover, in effect extending an olive branch of solidarity with the South. Wells-Barnett lamented that “temperance people” such as Willard allowed white Southerners “to capture the northerners to their way of seeing things, and without troubling to hear the Negro side of the question, these temperance people accepted the white man’s story of the problem with which [white Southerners] had to deal.”
Wells-Barnett also worried that white American sympathies were hardening into racist intransigence. In an 1893 speech delivered at Boston’s famous Tremont temple, she declared that “Times without number, since invested with citizenship, [the black] race has been indicted for ignorance, immorality and general worthlessness—declared guilty and executed by its self-constituted judges. The operations of law do not dispose of negroes fast enough, and lynching bees [social gatherings] have become a favorite pastime in the South,” emphasizing the callousness with which whites regarded blacks’ lives. Fearing this kind of reality, Wells-Barnett sought to awaken the humanity in her readers. In A Red Record, Wells-Barnett named names as a way to give the victims of lynching a human face—much like what Black Lives Matter movements do today when they call for protesters “to say their names.” Her appeal for sympathy from the public was not a simpering plea; rather, she endeavored to recuperate sympathy from white racist sentiment, and she hoped that sympathy grounded in truth would lead to national and international outrage over what America had done to its black populations.
See Ida B. Wells-Barnett, A Red Record. Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894 and “Address at Tremont Temple in the Tremont Temple in the Boston Monday Lectureship. Feb. 13, 1893, by Miss Ida B. Wells, formerly editor of the Free Speech, Memphis, Tenn.” in Ida B. Wells, The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader. Ed Mia Bay (New York: Penguin, 2014) Kindle, Loc 4066, 1988.
Stefan M. Wheelock is an associate professor in the English department at George Mason University whose first book Barbaric Culture and Black Critique: Black Antislavery Writers, Religion, and the Slaveholding Atlantic was published by the University of Virginia Press (2015).