Constitution Day lecture recognizes Ida B. Wells, tradition and importance of printed speech

Written by
Sarah Malone, Program in American Studies
Sept. 18, 2018

Assistant Professor of Politics Desmond Jagmohan, delivering the 2018 Princeton University Constitution Day lecture, located the journalism of Ida B. Wells in a tradition of combative printed speech that, he suggested, was thoroughly rooted in the United States by the time of the Constitutional Convention, and was essential to the political and cultural conditions in which the Constitution was written and ratified.

Wells — teacher in her youth, then pioneering investigative reporter, activist, columnist, organizer, and eventual candidate for Illinois Senate — saw free speech and a free press as essential to free society, Jagmohan said, but traced much of the increase in lynching in the last decades of the 19th century to newspapers’ deliberate encouragement. In editorials and pamphlets, Wells cited numerous instances of editorials passing judgment and mobs carrying it out, supplanting the judicial system of laws and courts. Newspapers printed names and addresses of potential lynch mob targets and announced lynching times and locations in advance. The telegraph functioned as an internet of its day, disseminating reports and outraging populaces far from events. Papers such as Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, inflaming passions to sell more papers, “stimulated fear and provided an outlet for fury,” Jagmohan said. “Pulitzer wouldn’t have won a Pulitzer.”

Wells exposed lynching, Jagmohan said, as not the result of spontaneous passion, as portrayed in editorials encouraging and justifying it, but as a disciplinary act that reconstituted communities along racial lines, defining who had rights and who didn’t.

Constitution Day is also Citizenship Day. Its 2004 federal mandate states that the dual observances “commemorate” the formation and signing on September 17, 1787 of the United States Constitution and “recognize” all U.S. citizens, whether they are citizens by birth or naturalization.

In response to sensationalistic speech, Ida B. Wells, Jagmohan said, advocated more speech. But Wells worried that the “new journalism” of the 1890s, the emphasis that The New York Times placed on facts, wouldn’t interest the general public sufficiently to counter sensationalism. She demanded calls to moral action in direct opposition to calls to lynching.

Jagmohan challenged Well’s idea of an obligation to undertake “fearless speech” against injustice regardless of personal consequences. He noted that reaction to the recent anonymous New York Times editorial by a self-declared “resistance” member within the White House expressed a devotion to fearless truth telling that few are willing to bear the burden of.

Jagmohan said that he meant not to criticize Wells but to argue for multiple valid modes of speech in resistance to oppression.

“The absence of fearless speech,” he said, “is not agreement or compromise.”

He cited Booker T. Washington’s “constrained speech,” the avoidance of speech that might increase risk to the Tuskegee Institute, its members and its growth. Jagmohan characterized constrained speech as a variety of the purposeful deceit advocated by Machiavelli as a justifiable political tool for the less powerful to use toward noble ends.

Respondent Hendrik Hartog, Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty and professor of history, characterized Wells and the sensationalistic press as fighting “a newspaper war between two different constitutional visions.” Printed speech, he said, was the Jim Crow regime’s method of promulgating lynching as a legitimate extension of criminal law, and it was Wells’s means to change the scope of what was accepted as constitutional.

The lecture was titled “Constituting Justice: Ida B. Wells’s Anti-Lynching Campaign,” and took place on Wednesday, September 12 at 4:30 p.m., in Arthur Lewis Auditorium in Robertson Hall. It was organized by the Program in American Studies and supported by the Office of the Provost. The James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and the Program in Law and Public Affairs cosponsored. Program in American Studies Director Anne Cheng introduced.