Stefan Wheelock is associate professor of English at George Mason University. He specializes in the study of Atlantic history and culture, with a specific focus on early African British and African American literatures. He is author of Barbaric Culture and Black Critique: Black Antislavery Writers, Religion, and the Slaveholding Atlantic (2015). Wheelock holds a Ph.D. in English from Brown University.
The court trials of Kyle Rittenhouse and of Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan captured the public’s attention for how they highlight the influence white supremacy, vigilantism, and entitlement have on the character and scope of justice and rights in the United States. Over a century ago, the journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett forecasted the potential dangers when national sympathies divide along racial lines and sanction forms of violence at the expense of justice. If she were alive today, Wells-Barnett would most assuredly have been following both trials with great interest, not only because the defendants and most of the jurors were white in what were racially charged cases, but also because the defense strategies in both cases reflect long-standing patterns in the history of racism in the United States. Wells-Barnett commented on how racial sensibilities helped draw distinctions between legal and extralegal forms of violence in U.S. history, and her commentary brings an important perspective on how the public’s perception of crime can influence judicial outcomes during the political and cultural crises of today.
Rittenhouse stood trial for killing two people and wounding another person during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, against the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake. The McMichaels and Bryan were convicted for killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia, near their neighborhood. In both trials, the prosecution and defense verbally sparred over the facts and legality of the defendants’ actions, as one might expect. But it was the jurors’ perception of the defendants’ actions—as either reasonable and civically responsible, or as reckless and violent—which significantly influenced the outcomes of the cases. In both trials, the defense teams appealed to the jurors’ sympathies, arguing that these men acted in self-defense and were within their rights to preserve law and order in the face of perceived threats.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett forecasted the potential dangers when national sympathies divide along racial lines and sanction forms of violence at the expense of justice.
In Rittenhouse’s case, the defense argued successfully that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense in accordance with Wisconsin state law, even though he was a minor who crossed state lines with a semi-automatic rifle. In some senses, the stage was being set for Rittenhouse’s acquittal. The judge would not allow the prosecution to refer to the people Rittenhouse shot and wounded as “victims” but rather as “rioters” and “looters”; and through testimony, Rittenhouse portrayed himself as the real victim who wanted to “protect property” and who lent medical aid during a period of social unrest. Since his acquittal, Rittenhouse has tried to further reinforce this view before the public eye.
Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery with the aid of his father Gregory while Bryan filmed the killing, in what some commentators have decried as a lynching. In this case, the defense and the prosecution (early on) sought to place a hedge of protection around the defendants. It would take 74 days after the execution of Arbery until the McMichaels were charged with homicide, in part because the district attorneys who initially oversaw the case seemingly favored the defendants. When the trial finally began, the defense attempted to garner sympathy for the defendants by resorting to racist platitudes and strategies: They argued that the defendants were engaging in a citizen’s arrest, a Georgia legal statute which has roots in the slave-patrolling laws of the antebellum era; implied racial bias, lamenting that too many Black pastors showed up to the courtroom in solidarity with the family of Ahmaud Arbery; and defamed the victim, insinuating that the defendants might have had reasons for chasing and killing Arbery given his “dirty” appearance.
Wells-Barnett would have recognized these details as part of a pattern the U.S. pulpit, press, and public encouraged. Wells-Barnett gained notoriety as a public figure and activist in the 1890s at a time when lynching had become a brute tactic of domestic racial terrorism. The justifications for lynching were based on a largely unsubstantiated claim—what Wells-Barnett condemned as the “threadbare lie” that Black men were raping white women at an alarming rate. White mobs weaponized this lie to torture and riddle Blacks with bullets, burn and hang them from trees and telephone poles, and sometimes castrate them, often with little-or-no evidence and usually with no legal repercussions.
Wells-Barnett gained notoriety as a public figure and activist in the 1890s at a time when lynching had become a brute tactic of domestic racial terrorism.
Wells-Barnett argued that if history were to be taken as a guide, racial sympathies for white victims and vigilantes exerted an outsized influence on the political terrain and the public mood, in effect defining what was regarded as crime. Wells-Barnett called for press coverage and religious rhetoric which would be “sympathetic” toward the plight of Blacks. In one of her interviews with journalists while in Britain, she implored the international press (and by implication, U.S. newspapers) to “Give us a hearing, and your sympathy, and say so. It will help, for the facts [about lynching] cannot stand the light of day.” The problem, as she saw it, was that while sympathetic journalism and oratory could potentially foster a sense of compassion for Blacks, national sympathies risked devolving into crude forms of racial bias in an era where negative feelings about Blacks ran high. In an 1894 lecture delivered in Bristol, England, Wells-Barnett noted, with characteristic bluntness, that the majority of those who participated in lynchings were religious yet hardened in their attitudes, commenting that white Americans “were too busy saving the souls of [other] white Christians from hell-fire to save the lives of black ones from present burning flames kindled by white Christians.”
In a masterful piece of journalism, Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900), Wells-Barnett reported on Robert Charles, a Black man on the run from the law who had been reduced to the status of a brute and, in a sense, “tried” by public opinion and by mainly white newspapers. In her commentary on Charles, she provided a maxim for her thinking: At a time when racial stereotypes significantly determined Blacks’ rights and when white mob violence posed significant threats to the rule of law in the United States, Wells-Barnett professed that a Black person accused of a crime is, for all intents and purposes, a “villain unhung,” meaning a Black person who would most likely be condemned by whites to the gallows regardless of their guilt or innocence. Across her writings, she describes how racial sympathies drew cultural distinctions between those who were regarded as criminals and between which forms of violence were regarded as legitimate.
In another political tract, Wells-Barnett argued that lynching and the convict leasing system, an enterprise responsible for condemning unprecedented numbers of Blacks to prison slave labor, flourished, in part, because the “religious, moral and philanthropic forces of the country—all the agencies which tend to uplift and reclaim the degraded and ignorant, are in the hands of the Anglo-Saxon.” White Christian and moral influences “shut [Blacks] out of everything which tends to make for good citizenship.” And white “judges, juries, and other officials [who] make the laws” were responsible for the glaring inequities in sentencing.
Wells-Barnett wanted to wrest sympathy from racial bias in ways which overcame racist proscriptions from the pulpit, the press, and the courts and promoted equal justice for all.
Wells-Barnett sparred with mainly white editors from newspapers such as the Tennessee-based Daily Commercial who justified the extralegal practice of lynching as that which “can hold in check the horrible and bestial propensities of the Negro race.” Sympathy would serve, then, as an antidote. In her view, sympathy could be mobilized as a way of shifting the polarity of cultural perception. She was not calling for crude media bias which solely advantaged Blacks and not a “maudlin” or teary-eyed sympathy for “criminals” the media sometimes displayed, but the kind of sympathy which advanced “common justice” for all alike. In other words, she wanted to wrest sympathy from racial bias in ways which overcame racist proscriptions from the pulpit, the press, and the courts and promoted equal justice for all.
Wells-Barnett might very well have called for a democratically informed empathy which promoted racial justice. Her efforts to deracialize sympathy played a crucial role in what the scholar of Black religion Angela D. Sims calls the “re-orientation” of cultural outlooks from the vantage point of the oppressor to the oppressed—a practice which “requires both a self-evaluation of held assumptions as well as a broader evaluation of behaviors that impede the actualization of justice.” It was Wells-Barnett’s efforts at reorienting the public mood which make her work required reading for understanding the racial crises of the present.