I was recently deeply honored to be asked by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to serve as sponsor for a Navy ship being named for Sojourner Truth, my lifelong heroine and North Star in the struggle for freedom, equality and justice in our land. This ship will join others in the John Lewis-class of ships named after civil and human rights leaders. The lead ship in the class honors iconic civil rights activist and Congressman Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). Other Lewis-class ships honor Senator and Navy veteran Robert F. Kennedy; gay rights activist and Navy diver Harvey Milk; 19th-century suffragist Lucy Stone; and great U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. Navy Secretary Mabus, the former Governor of Mississippi, had previously announced other ships honoring labor rights and farm worker organizer and Navy veteran Cesar Chavez and Mississippi civil rights leader and martyr Medgar Evers. I am so grateful to Secretary Mabus for his commitment to reflecting the inclusiveness of American society and recognizing each of these leaders’ extraordinary contributions to closing the gap between our nation’s creed and deed.
Sojourner Truth was a brilliant but allegedly illiterate slave woman, a great orator and a powerful presence who possessed unbelievable courage and perseverance in standing up for justice as a Black woman. She challenged the racial and gender caste system of slavery by suing for the return of a son sold away from her. She got thrown off Washington, D.C. streetcars but kept getting back on until they changed the rules and let her ride. She stood up with fiery eloquence to opponents and threatening crowds who tried to stop her from speaking. When a hostile White man told her that the hall where she was scheduled to appear would be burnt down if she spoke, she replied, “Then I will speak to the ashes.” When taunted while speaking in favor of women’s rights by some White men who asked if she was really a woman, she bared her breasts and allegedly famously retorted, “Ain’t I a woman?,” detailing the back-breaking double burden of slavery’s work and childbearing she had endured. When heckled by a White man in her audience who said he didn’t care any more about her antislavery talk than for an old flea bite, she snapped back, “Then the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.” And when decrying her exclusion from America’s life and professed freedoms during a religious meeting where another speaker had just praised the Constitution, she told this story:
“Children, I talks to God and God talks to me. I goes out and talks to God in de fields and de woods. Dis morning I was walking out, and I got over de fence. I saw de wheat a holding up its head, looking very big. I goes up and takes holt ob it. You b’lieve it, dere was no wheat dare? I says, God, what is de matter wid dis wheat? and he says to me, ‘Sojourner, dere is a little weasel in it.’ Now I hears talkin’ about de Constitution and de rights of man. I comes up and I takes hold of dis Constitution. It looks mighty big, and I feels for my rights, but der aint any dare. Den I says, God, what ails dis Constitution? He says to me, ‘Sojourner, dere is a little weasel in it.’”
This language captured in an 1863 edition of the National Anti-Slavery Standard shares a flaw with many existing accounts of her speeches — they were often written down in the mock Southern dialect that 19th-century readers identified with all slaves, despite the fact that Sojourner Truth was born and raised in rural New York as the slave of a Dutch-speaking family, spoke Dutch as a child, took pride in speaking correct English as an adult, and reportedly sounded like White New York peers. But her messages were always crystal clear whether in proper English or in dialect.
Since Sojourner Truth’s day, Black and White and Brown and other excluded and marginalized women — and men — have been trying to ferret out the unjust and greedy weasels still eating away at the core of our Constitution and the promise of equal opportunity and justice before the law in our national life, gain the rights and freedoms they know they have been promised, and build a fairer America for themselves and their children. Huge weasels are still trying to take hold of America’s Constitution and weaken its promise of equal opportunity and justice and we’d better wake up, stay awake, alert and vote — every one of us eligible — to pluck out these weasels and other pests that want to return us to our Jim Crow past whose legacies linger. The struggle for a fair playing field for all Americans and for all of our children must accelerate and grow and reach a mighty crescendo today when our right to vote, to equal education for our children, and to fair law enforcement are under attack. Let’s all stand up and fight back as Sojourner Truth did in her time and as I know she would do if she was living today.
Scholar Carleton Mabee tells us a bit more about how in 1865, one year after visiting President Abraham Lincoln in the White House, Sojourner Truth determined to desegregate the segregated horse car system in Washington, D.C. She was working with freed slaves in Washington at the time and was often ignored by drivers when she tried to get them to stop. “One day, in 1865, Truth signaled a car to stop,” Mabee said. “When it did not, she ran after it yelling. The conductor kept ringing his bell so that he could pretend he had not heard her. When at last the conductor had to stop the car to take on White passengers, Truth also climbed into the car, scolding the conductor: ‘It’s a shame to make a lady run so.’” The Sojourner Truth Institute says: “Sojourner Truth, who rode the horse car that day‚ and many horse cars afterward, sat where she pleased; not where she was told. Her determination followed a lifetime of going where angels, and her contemporaries, often feared to tread.” We need the same determination today.
Our nation is still struggling mightily to live up to its creed enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and overcome its huge birth defects that still plague us in the implementation of our political and economic system: Native American genocide, slavery, and exclusion of all women and non-propertied men, including White men, from America’s political process. We have come a very long way but these deep-seated cultural, racial, economic and gender impediments to a just union challenge us still. We must remain vigilant in rooting them out and determined to move forward and not backwards if we are to become a greater nation with an opportunity to show the majority non-White world a living democracy.
Every day I wear two pendants around my neck with the portraits of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. When I think I’m having a hard day, I just touch them, remember their challenges, get up and keep going. Inscribed on the back of Sojourner Truth’s image are these words: “If women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it.” Those are our marching orders for building an America where none of our children, including our daughters and granddaughters, face a ceiling on who they can become and what they can achieve.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund