Friday, December 21, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Ida B. Wells's 1909 "This Awful Slaughter"

Public speaking is an important tool for the campaigner--not just those campaigning for public office, but those campaigning for a cause. And around the cusp of the 20th century, former journalist and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells was a frequent speaker against the practice of lynching, mob killings of African-Americans without due process of the law. As a black woman, however, she was an unlikely public speaker; women of all races were publicly discouraged from speaking in that era.

Despite that, Wells's anti-lynching campaign had been going on for many years, and this speech had an historic occasion as its backdrop: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's first annual conference, held in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1909. An NAACP founder, Wells was a natural choice as a speaker for this group, yet it was anything but a feel-good speech for the home crowd.

"This Awful Slaughter" has a structure in common with other Wells speeches, and Professor Karlyn Kohrs Campbell explains it in this paper on the rhetoric of black women speakers of the era:
First, as in her writings, she used evidence and argument in highly sophisticated ways, ways that prevented members of the audience from dismissing her claims as biased or untrue. Second, the speech was an insightful and sophisticated analysis of the interrelationship of sex, race, and class. Third, in contrast to the rhetorical acts of women, this speech contained no stylistic markers indicating attempts by a woman speaker to appear “womanly” in what is perceived as a male role-that of rhetor.
However, Wells tied lynching to women, directly and firmly, noting early in her speech that "crimes against women is the excuse, not the cause" of lynching. She expanded on that point, using the term by which we know the speech today, and turning the argument back on the supporters of lynching:
What is the cause of this awful slaughter? This question is answered almost daily— always the same shameless falsehood that “Negroes are lynched to protect womanhood"....This is the never-varying answer of lynchers and their apologists. All know that it is untrue. The cowardly lyncher revels in murder, then seeks to shield himself from public execration by claiming devotion to woman. But truth is mighty and the lynching record discloses the hypocrisy of the lyncher as well as his crime.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Jump right in: No thanking everyone and their brother here. Instead of the niceties, Wells's first paragraph packs several punches. It shares her three-point outline, letting the audience in on her argument, begins serving up data, and sets the stage for why her audience should care. Would that your first paragraphs did as much.
  • Use data to advantage: Wells used data cleverly. As Campbell notes, her data prevented skeptics from challenging her--after all, advocates of lynching were relying on vague emotional arguments, not numbers, to make their case. At the same time, it brought under scrutiny a practice carried out in secret, and gave weight to an emotionally charged topic. Not bad for statistics. One of the most dramatic paragraphs in the speech picks apart an argument using actual data on the reasons given for lynchings in one area. To this audience, those numbers were real people.
  • Include a call to action for the conference: When organizations meet, they typically use the occasion to make and publicize policy decisions.Wells did not miss the opportunity, offering that "it would be a beginning in the right direction if this conference can see its way clear to establish a bureau for the investigation and publication of the details of every lynching," and made clear that the goal of fact-gathering would be public information to sway both public opinion and media coverage. If you're speaking before a group's annual meeting, don't miss the chance to encourage its action on your cause. Wells did so by underscoring her use of data with a call for more data, cementing the impact of one of her core themes.
Of course, there's no video for this fine speech, but we're fortunate to have the full text. You can read more about Wells in "They Say": Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race and in Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching. And if your organization is looking for scholars on the African-American experience to speak about Wells, has a useful speakers' bureau for that purpose. What do you think of this famous speech?

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