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Honoring a Warrior for Justice and Equality for All

Courageous Sojourner Truth

Marian Wright Edelman | 10/11/2016, 4:44 p.m.
Sojourner Truth was a brilliant but allegedly illiterate slave woman, a great orator and a powerful presence who possessed unbelievable ...
Marian Wright Edelman

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 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 the great 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 anymore about her antislavery talk than for an old flea bite, she snapped back, “Then the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.”

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.