MEMPHIS — First Baptist Beale Street Church is to many a sacred ground. It’s not only a church, but it’s also where Ida B. Wells made history as a civil rights activist and journalist.
Reverend L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr. preached at the church for years.
“Through these doors, many dignitaries and celebrities have walked to be a part of this congregation,” Reverend Gray said.
He’s retired now, but still making his mark as the president of the Memphis Memorial Committee to honor Ida B. Wells.
“Ida B. Wells was a crusader for human rights,” Reverend Gray said. “In this church behind me, she had a newspaper called ‘The Free Speech and Headlight’. Telling the truth got Ida B. Wells in all kinds of trouble, but in the words of John Lewis, good trouble.”
Ida B. Wells became a national sensation in the late 1800s for her fight against segregation and lynching.
Daphene R. McFerren has also been working to preserve Ida B. Wells' legacy.
She and Nathaniel C. Ball work at the Benjamin L Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis. Since 2015, they’ve been working on a documentary about Wells.
Lynching is simply an unlawful execution of someone, an unlawful murder,” McFerren said. “Experts acknowledge that there were other people who were outraged at the practice of lynching. However, she's the first person to launch an anti-lynching crusade that started both in the United States and extended into England.”
They say she really started to speak out against lynching after her good friend Thomas Moss was murdered by a mob in 1892. He was a thriving Black entrepreneur who owned a grocery store.
“She realizes after this, like, you know, ‘wait, what's going on?’” Ball said. “’This isn't about punishing criminals.’ In Thomas Moss's case, this is about punishing somebody. An African American man who was too successful.”
After this, Wells started an international campaign against lynching. Jeffery Jenkins teaches policy and law at the University of Southern California. For more than a century, he says no anti-lynching bill had passed both the House and Congress.
“It was initially brought up in the early part of the 20th century as a way for civil rights leaders to get members of Congress to care about African American rights again,” Jenkins said. “The very young NAACP at that point thought that lynching would be the best case, right, that it was so abhorrent, it was so terrible that white people would care about it.”
Finally, in the year 2022, there was almost unanimous bipartisan support for the Emmett Till Bill.
“It's named after an African American boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955,” Jenkins said. “He supposedly whistled at a white woman. That led to a number of white men being upset by it. And he was essentially grabbed and executed - lynched.”
He says the passing of this bill is significant because it’s been difficult for Democrats and Republicans to rally behind the same cause. McFerren says she hopes it will lead to proper justice when a hate crime is committed.
The new law makes murders or severe attacks on the basis of race or a limited number of factors a federal crime meaning the full prosecutorial power of the government tries the case. Those convicted can receive more prison time.
“The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Bill means for the future that the nation takes seriously the practice of unjust murder of people based upon race, class or ethnicity,” McFerren said.
All agree Ida B. Wells would be thrilled to see the passing of this bill, while also recognizing so much more still needs to be done.