Activist state

New Document Documents Memphis Origins of Ida B. Wells’ Crusade | State News

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — In July, a life-size statue of Ida B. Wells was unveiled near the corner of Fourth and Beale, at the new Ida B. Wells Plaza.

The bronze likeness joined earlier tributes to Wells like a 1990 U.S. postage stamp and a 2020 Pulitzer Prize “special citation,” acknowledging what Pulitzer’s board described as “his outstanding and courageous reporting on the gruesome and vicious violence against African Americans during the lynching era.

Wells, in other words, was not without posthumous recognition and high praise. In recent years, she has become one of the most famous figures in the struggle for racial enlightenment after the Civil War, before the Civil Rights Movement. His name, like that of his most famous successor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., commands seemingly universal respect.

But while Wells, in symbolic statue form, now stands tall in the Memphis landscape like a sentinel demanding justice, her relationship to the city where she launched her crusades against racism and sexism arguably remains understated, both at both locally and nationally.

That could change if a group of filmmakers from Memphis were successful.

A project from the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis, “Facing Down Storms: Memphis and the Making of Ida B. Wells” will premiere at 7 p.m. on April 19 with a screening of fundraiser at the Halloran Center at Orpheum. Emmy-winning producer Rita Coburn (“The Oprah Winfrey Show,” PBS’s “American Masters”) will host the event.


Co-directed by Hooks Institute Executive Director Daphene R. McFerren and Hooks Institute Deputy Director Nathaniel C. Ball, the feature-length documentary utilizes narration, interviews, readings from Wells’ journals, the animation (by Tonya Smith), re-enactments (with actors from Hattiloo and Playhouse on the Square in period costumes created by the U of M’s theater and dance department), and other techniques and strategies for telling the story. story of Ida B. Wells in Memphis.

Professional filmmaker Fabian Matthews of Spotlight Productions collaborated with McFerren and Ball, who was hired as producer, editor and cinematographer. Matthews said the documentary became “a huge undertaking” as its ambitions grew to match Wells’ prominence, which is why he suggested broadening its appeal with animation and other approaches. .

Ball, a seasoned documentarian, said Wells’ Memphis story “has never really been told that way. We wanted to make it visually interesting as well as something people will learn from. It really has become a work of art.

He said the project began almost seven years ago, although work on the film could only take place in spurts, due to global demands from the 27-year-old Hooks Institute, which hosts numerous social and educational initiatives as it addresses “contemporary racial, social, economic, and other disparities through community engagement and faculty scholarship” (to quote its mission statement).

McFerren said Ida B. Wells “would not exist as we know her without her experience in Memphis”, where she lived for about 10 years. (Wells was born into slavery in 1862 in Holly Springs and died in 1931 in Chicago.)

For many southern blacks, “Memphis was the place to come after the Civil War,” McFerren said. “Memphis had a vibrant social and cultural scene, and she (Wells) came here hoping to fulfill her personal and professional dreams.”

It was here, in the 1890s, that the educator, journalist and newspaper co-owner began a series of militant investigations into the local lynchings of three black men that inspired national outrage and reform efforts that continue to be felt. (The Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which makes lynching a federal hate crime, only came into effect this year, signed by President Joe Biden at a March 29 ceremony attended by Wells relatives. and Till, the youth murdered in Mississippi in 1955.)

Eventually, threats and violence—mobs attacked the office of Wells’ newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight—drove Wells to Chicago, where she continued her anti-lynching activism.

“Although she left under circumstances where she was not appreciated, Memphis should be proud that Ida B. Wells began her crusade here,” McFerren said. “Memphis has really helped shape human rights around the world.”

Funded by a combination of grants and donations, the 90-minute “Facing Down Storms” is set to make its way to various film festivals and streaming services after its premiere in Memphis.

“Our goal is to get distribution, and I hope the film can provide some revenue for the institute,” Ball said, citing popular documentaries associated with the University of Memphis from years past like “At the River I Stand’, on the 1968 Memphis cleanup. hit.

“What Ida B. Wells witnessed was a rollback of the gains brought about by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments,” which abolished slavery and outlawed certain forms of discrimination, McFerren said. “To me, that reflects a lot of what is happening right now.

“I see us now in a backlash of the period from Brown against the Board of Education to the presidency of Barack Obama. In the story of Ida B. Wells there is a warning for the future. There is no guarantee that the gains of the civil rights era will continue.