This paper focuses Ida B. Wells and the first years of her anti-lynching campaign in the 1890s, a time in U.S. history when, in the midst of extreme and overt racism, the greatest number of recorded lynchings occurred. Particular incidents, such as the murders of her close friends, compelled Wells to undertake the battle against lynch law. Wells realized silence sanctioned lynching. At times risking her life, she determined to use the media to bring the issue out into the open. Her goal was to thrust the issue of mob law into the public arena through mainstream and Black newspapers in an effort to confront an indifferent American populace with its racist rationale for lynching Black men. She developed strategies that provoked mainstream newspapers to grapple with racial and gender stereotypes, which were deeply ingrained and had fostered a prevailing sentiment of tolerance for lynching in the late-nineteenth century.
In her writings and lectures, Wells systematically challenged the common defense used by whites to justify lynching Black men--the rape of white women. Wells maintained that such allegations served as emotional leverage to support the practice. Building her case around a litany of documented incidents, Wells argued that white women who charged Black men with rape often had participated willingly in those relationships until their liaison became known by others in the surrounding community. Two trips to England generated reaction and controversy from the white press in the United States. Following Wells's return from England, she went on the lecture circuit in the United States. Public reaction to Wells's message put her in the center of controversy, a position she used to help advance her cause. Wells had garnered the attention of mainstream newspapers. Unfortunately, despite her activism and the decline of lynching from its peak year in 1892, lynching continued well into the 1930s.
William Benjamin Townsend had $2.50 to his name in 1896, "just half enough to buy a bundle of small blank paper at that time." He wanted his own newspaper, but he needed $5.00 to lease the building and the materials. So he borrowed $2.50 more from local merchant Jack Moore and began what would become a lifetime career as sole owner and editor of The Dahlonega Nugget.
With little formal education, W.B. Townsend learned the printing trade in the office of Dahlonega, Georgia's fourth newspaper, The Mountain Signal. On September 21, 1923, Townsend wrote: "The Editor of The Nugget learned most of what little he knows in the print shop, and stands at the case dishing out the news so the most illiterate person understands." Townsend and two other partners had operated a sheet in 1876 called The Dahlonega Advertiser, which eventually merged with The Mountain Signal.
Popular writers and serious scholars have paid an extraordinary amount of attention to l9th Century frontier violence involving fur trappers, Indians, miners, military commanders, ranchers, and gunfighters. But the potential for violence was also a fact of life for frontier editors. The history of many Southern and Western towns of any consequence prior to, during, and after the Civil War was written with the blood of forgotten small-town country editors.
Some editors never had a chance to settle their disputes with irate readers in a formal manner; they were simply murdered outright on the street or in their offices. A few were seemingly killed for no apparent reason, others fell in accordance with the code duello, and many were brutally caned or horsewhipped for words printed in their columns.
Frontier editors usually asked for trouble and got it because they were expected to "boom" their own towns and to attack anything that got in the way. In some frontier towns, editors carried on constant wars of words with each other while struggling with delinquent subscribers, battling deadbeat politicians, trying to give hope and encouragement to struggling pioneers, and promoting civic development and reform. Editors knew that controversy was not only good politics but also good for circulation.
The nineteenth century never happened, or so at least traditional First Amendment scholarship would lead us to believe. Of the 566 pages of his seminal Free Speech in the US, Zechariah Chafee dedicated a grand total of 4 pages to the 19th century. Free speech scholarship radically revised itself over the past half century, with Leonard Levy's highly influential Legacy of Suppression representing the turning point. But with all the vigor of revision, the new lights of the First Amendment have proved hopeless traditionalists when it came to 19th century freedom of speech scholarship, or rather, non-scholarship. Most contemporary monographs on free speech and free press in America have little if anything to say about the 19th century.
This neglect of the 19th century is curious, for according to both freedom of speech schools, something should have happened in its course to First Amendment notions and practices. That otherwise lively century had witnessed the radical democratization of American politics. It featured revolutions, first in transportation, then in electric communication, which together transformed the American information environment and the nation's press. The 19th century also produced the greatest event of American history—the Civil War—to which notions of freedoms and rights was central. The same century hosted the American industrial revolution. These 19th century developments should have had a significant bearing on ideas and practices of press and speech freedom.