Ida B. Wells, a schoolteacher, was sitting in a woman’s railroad car, reading, when the conductor ordered her to move to the “Jim Crow” car. She refused, saying that was a smoking car and she was in the ladies car. When the conductor grabbed her, she “sunk her teeth” into his arm.
The 1875 Civil Rights Act had banned discrimination based on race on transportation but in 1883, the Supreme Court declared this act unconstitutional. The ruling said Congress did not have the power to void discrimination acts by individuals as it did on state action or laws “Private acts of racial discrimination were simply private wrongs that the national government was powerless to correct”.
When she sued the railroad for her treatment, her attorney was paid off by the railroad, so she hired a white attorney and won a $500 settlement. The judge says she was indeed a lady. She was a schoolteacher and was “dressed accordingly.” Her victory was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Ms. Wells went on to be a civil rights activist by being a journalist.
As a journalist, she became aware that the new black middle class was at risk when three of her friends were lynched. Before this, she had thought such lynchings, while deplorable, were targeted at those in the lower class who may have been involved in activities that merited a kind of punishment. Her eyes were then opened to see that lynchings were a way to “get rid of negroes who acquired wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized…..”