Classroom Activities

  1. One of the central features of effective rhetoric is that it is well matched or accommodated to its audience. The kinds of examples Wells uses in this speech,” Lynch Law,” are different from the evidence she includes in “Southern Horrors,” her 1892 anti-lynching speech to black club women. (A pamphlet version of this address is available online at In “Southern Horrors,” she talked more about her own Memphis experience and the loss of her three friends. She featured more cases in which black men accused of rape had in fact been involved in consensual relationships; and she outlined specific actions that African Americans should take in response. Why might Wells have made these changes in emphasis? Can you think of occasions where you have had to adapt the same narrative to different audiences to achieve certain kinds of persuasive effects? What information did you leave out or give special emphasis as your story traveled from audience to audience (e.g., from your best friend to your parents, your employer, your teacher). Be prepared to provide specific examples.
  2. Ida Wells was characterized by some as abrasive, direct, blunt, or aggressive. Do you find evidence of such attributes in the speech “Lynch Law”? In other words, you are being asked to consider Wells’s ethos or the way the audience responds to a speaker’s character as projected in the speech–her ethical appeal. Some rhetorical theorists think ethos is more persuasive than either pathetic or logical appeal. How important do you think ethos is in influencing your response to a speaker?
  3. Wells knew that the members of this Boston Monday lectureship audience were as concerned about the reputation of the nation as about the treatment of a particular segment of the population; thus, she pitched a good portion of the speech to their patriotism, their “desire to preserve our institutions.” She closed the speech with lines from a national hymn. Speakers, seeking to establish common ground among dissenting or skeptical groups, will often begin by establishing agreement on some common value, often removed from the immediate issue at hand. Rather than focus exclusively on the immorality of lynching, Wells talked of patriotism. Can you think of other examples of arguments that first establish agreement around some higher value?
  4. Among the examples of reported lynchings, Wells included in her speech several involving black women (see paragraph 24). How does the inclusion of black women change the usual images associated with lynching as well as the alleged motives usually associated with the practice? Why do you think that mob violence against women was not generally discussed as frequently? Might this be an example of silencing the struggles of women?

Student Research 

  1. Wells compares U. S. responses to the 1891 Italian lynchings in New Orleans to the numerous lynchings of blacks around the same time. See the discussion of this incident in the interpretive essay and in other histories of the period. Based on your research, do you think Wells was correct in implying that the response was different because the victims were white foreigners? Can you think of any contemporary examples where public outcry against the denial of civil rights varied according to the race or ethnicity of those involved?
  2. Research the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court decision, upholding the constitutionality of “separate but equal” accommodations. Albion Tourgée, Wells’s friend and political associate, acted as Homer Plessy’s lawyer in the case. How might the outcome of that case have influenced the political climate surrounding the widespread outbreaks of mob violence during this period? How might Wells and other speakers have used this case to demonstrate why anti-lynching laws were needed?
  3. The most powerful collection of photographs taken at lynching scenes has been collected, authenticated, and catalogued by James Allen in his book, Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America (Sante Fe, NM: Twin Palm Publishers, 2000). These disturbing images may also be viewed online at If you choose to view the images this way, pay attention to the spectators as well as the victims; among them are women and children. Each photograph is accompanied by the name of the victim and the specific circumstances of the lynching, when known. Be sure to read this information as well. Compare these actual pictures of lynching with the descriptions Wells included in her anti-lynching publications, and write an essay about the advantages and disadvantages of visual and textual arguments.
  4. Go to the Library of Congress website, “The Progress of a People,” A Special Presentation of the Daniel A. P. Murray Pamphlet Collection, for a reenactment of a session of the December 1898 meeting of the National Afro-American Council in Washington, D.C. Select Session I: Segregation and Violence, to hear an excerpt from Ida Wells-Barnett’s pamphlet, “Lynch Law in Georgia” (1899) and to read the text of the entire pamphlet: This site features Wells’ argument against lynching six years after she delivered “Lynch Law.” By this time she had been to England twice, had married Fred Barnett, and would become head of the Afro-American Council’s Anti-Lynching Bureau. How do her anti-lynching arguments here compare to the earlier ones?

Citizenship Resources

  1. Those who heard or read Wells’s anti-lynching texts often discussed whether Wells’s rhetoric was masculine or feminine, while some contemporary scholars question whether these are distinct modes of speaking and writing. Read some of the scholarship on this topic and determine whether in your view this is a valid distinction. You could start with Thomas J. Farrell, “The Female and Male Modes of Rhetoric.” College English 40.8(April 1979): 909-921 or Karlyn Kohrs Campbell’s discussion of Wells’s masculine style, “Style and Content in the Rhetoric of Early Afro-American Feminists.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 72 (1986): 440-441. Then consider the delivery style of prominent women currently in the news like Senator Hillary Clinton, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, First Lady Laura Bush, or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. You can find video clips of all of these women speaking on YouTube, their personal websites, or other Internet sites. To what extent do you think their manner of speaking and kinds of arguments are influenced by a feminine style? How might their styles affect the response of American viewers?
  2. View the 53-minute William Greaves video Ida B. Wells: A Passion For Justice, available in most university and public libraries. The video, narrated by historian Paula Giddings, includes author Toni Morrison reading passages from Wells’s work and dramatized scenes from the period. How do the images, sounds, and impressions created by the video change your understanding of Wells and her anti-lynching crusade? How effective is historical dramatization in representing arguments and social movements from the past? Consider this discussion on the responsibility of historical fiction to be historically accurate: Should historical dramatizations hold accuracy above all? Be prepared to defend your position with examples or other forms of evidence.
  3. How does the form in which the argument is presented change its effectiveness, especially arguments on contentious topics like race-based lynching? To develop a response to this question, compare and contrast any three of the following (The titles in parentheses are only suggestions): anti-lynching speech (“Lynch Law”) poem (“Strange Fruit,” most famously sung by Billie Holiday) a short story (“Goldie” by Angelina Weld Grimké) a video (“Passion for Justice”) photographs (Without Sanctuary) play (“Blue-eyed Black Boy” by Georgia Douglass Johnson). You may wish to identify different genres of arguments on another topic entirely. Remember that you are not necessarily trying to determine which argument is better, but rather how the argument changes as it moves across genres. What genres are likely to appeal to what kinds of audiences?