Kavitha Iyengar

Litigating Unwritten Law: reading Sam Hose's brutal murder, white newspaper opinion, and Ida Wells' anti-lynching campaign as legal discourse and recourse

This project details the material and legal communities that Ida Wells imagined during her anti-lynching campaign. Reading Sam Hose’s death and the white press discourse that called for his lynching raises one tragic example of a competition to create legal meaning. Taking ‘law’ to be a term that calls for justice, Ida Wells responded to the tragedy by litigating his murderers before the court of public opinion. InLynch Law in Georgia, Ida Wells details the facts of Sam Hose’s death, disputing the dominant legal framework and facts that had resulted in Hose’s untimely death. The project first textually analyzes Well’s arguments against white press accounts, what she terms the ‘unwritten law,’ in order to frame the material realities of these newspaper communities that trafficked in legal language. Next, I aim to examine what I call the legal community that Wells imagined, a community that she created between herself and her reading public, calling for legal change. The project ends by drawing the two imagined communities together to frame the ‘public meaning’ of law that circulated outside formal courts while articulating legal change.