By the time an early 20th century white suffrage worker from Texas named Jessie Daniel Ames turned her attention to racial questions and especially the heinous epidemic of mob violence against black men known as lynching, black women had been fighting it for 40 years.
In the 1890s, Memphis, Tenn., journalist Ida B. Wells began investigating the supposedly sexual crimes against white women by black men–usually accusations of rape–that led to widespread vigilante “justice.” The threat, she said, was really an economic one. During World War I, while suffragists picketed the White House for the vote, educator and activist Nannie Burroughs criticized President Wilson for his silence on lynching. She was put under government surveillance. In 1918, the National Association of Colored Women passed a resolution demanding that the abhorrent practice stop. It did not.
Jessie Daniel Ames was a white suffrage worker in Texas until, in the 1920s, she became more and more interested in race. She joined the Commission on Interracial Cooperation in Atlanta, Ga., which intended to bring “the best people,” white and black, together to work for “improved race relations.” But then she heard Burroughs say that lynching was carried out for the protection of white women and “when white women were ready to stop lynching, they’d stop it and it wouldn’t be stopped before.”
Her conscience stung, Ames acted, setting in motion a campaign to dismantle white women’s complicity in mob violence done in the name of their “honor.”
Her Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, formed in the winter of 1930 in Atlanta, recruited Southern white women to knock down their pedestals and refute the stereotyped ideas that they were vulnerable and in need of protection. Starting with two dozen of what she called “lady insurrectionists,” Ames gathered allies among Protestant churchwomen, Jewish clubwomen and the increasingly activist YWCA. Each December, a core group gathered to make policy and public statements. They carried petitions throughout the South, asking sheriffs, judges, governors and other political figures to pledge themselves against lynching.
It was dangerous work, but the organization’s membership grew to 4 million by 1940, as the number of reported lynchings plummeted. Ames’ consciousness grew too. She came to understand how white male supremacy led to control of white women and to the permissible rape of black women by white men. Like Ida B. Wells before her, Ames began to find it possible that some white women had sexual relations with black men because they wanted to, not because they were forced. Although she and others were developing a critique of segregation, few were yet ready to form a mass movement against it; that would be left for the next generation.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” To contact her, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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