By Marian Wright Edelman
Sojourner Truth was a brilliant and formidable enslaved woman and abolitionist, 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 repeatedly 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.”
In a famous speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention she spoke of the back-breaking physical work she endured while enslaved that made her as strong as any man. 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.’”
The language captured here in an 1863 edition of the National Anti-Slavery Standard shares a flaw with a number of other accounts of her speeches: they were written down in a mock Southern dialect that many 19th-century readers identified with slavery, despite the fact that Sojourner Truth was born and raised in rural New York, enslaved by a Dutch-speaking family as a child, took pride in speaking correct English as an adult, and reportedly sounded like white New York peers. But even in this crude transcription her message is still crystal clear. On July 4th it was helpful to return to her words again.
Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth’s contemporary and fellow abolitionist, was very explicit on how he saw this day: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages…[F]or revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
The legal barbarity of American slavery would soon end, but the struggle to make our nation live up to the lofty creeds enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution did not.
Since Truth and Douglass’s day, Black, Indigenous, and other excluded and marginalized women and men have never stopped trying to root out the unjust and greedy weasels still gnawing away at the core of our Constitution, equal protections under the law, and other rights and freedoms needed to build a fairer America for ourselves and our children.
The self-evident truths in our founding documents have not yet been realized for everyone. As efforts to undermine democracy and suppress voting rights are spreading in state legislatures across our nation, please stay awake and remain vigilant and ready to stop these 21st century weasels that seek to return us to our Jim Crow past and weaken our nation’s still unfulfilled promise of equal opportunity and justice under the law for all. We must always move forward and never backwards.
Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for her entire professional life.