Black Women March on Washington: The Sojourners for Truth and Justice and Black Women’s Lives Matter

Before the 1963 March on Washington a group of African American women stormed the gates of the capital demanding that the state, society, and public servants acknowledge black women’s humanity and suffering. In the fall of 1951, the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, issued “A Call to Negro Women” for African American women to descend on Washington D.C. to “demand of the President, the Justice Department, and the Congress the absolute immediate and unconditional redress of grievances.”[1] The Sojourners planned to meet with the President, the Secretary of State, the Justice Department and the Attorney General.[2]

Their march proved productive. Participants met with the Attorney General and representatives from the Department of Justice and the War Department. The delegation also held a silent vigil on the White House lawn to protest President Truman’s refusal to meet with them. By the close of their journey, participants proclaimed that their Washington protest was “the most inspiring experience in their lives, and that [the Sojourners] must not lose momentum in the movement but must fan out to every corner of the country to arouse Negro women of the United States.” The Sojourners membership roll read like a Who’s Who of black women activists. Members included well-known Communist Party leaders like Louise Thompson Patterson, Claudia Jones, Audley Moore, and Esther Cooper Jackson. Burgeoning playwrights and authors like Lorraine Hansberry and Alice Childress were members of the group. Shirley Dubois, wife of W.E.B. Du Bois, and Mary Church Terrell also joined the delegation.

 

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A primary goal of the Sojourners’ agenda was to highlight the ways in which African American women were victims of racist violence but also how they experienced this violence as wives, sisters, and mothers. They offered support for the families of the Harriet and Harry Moore, leaders of the Florida NAACP, murdered in their home on Christmas Day, 1951. In their press release, the group claimed that Moore murders, members reminded America that, “Black women the world over know far too well the tearless grief of Mrs. Rosa Moore, whose 71 years of sacrifice gave to the world a fighting son of the Negro People, Harry T. Moore.” The group also identified with the anguish of Harriet’s mother, who, “sat by the bedside of her dying daughter,” an action they claimed, “pierced the side of every Negro mother.” Members argued that the Moore tragedy was an example of black women’s daily experiences with violence and injustice.[3] They also rallied around high-profile cases like that of Rosa Lee Ingram, a Georgia sharecropper sentenced to death for killing her white landlord who attempted to sexually assault her. For the Sojourners, the arrest of Rosa Lee Ingram was a profound example of the governments’ unwillingness to protect black women’s “lives and liberties.” [4]

The Sojourners practiced what is now called intersectionality – a politics based on the interrelationship between race, class, gender, and sexual oppression. They refused to marginalize issues of rape and sexual assault in black liberation struggles or engage in the victim blaming and shaming that African American women too often experience. Many of the Sojourners were part of multiple progressive and radical groups, but they found that an organization dedicated to African American women’s concerns was critical for advancing the freedom of all people.

Their Sojourn to Washington D.C. offers an opportunity to rethink activist icons, radical leadership, and organizing strategies. While we remember King’s dream and demands of the federal government, the Sojourners’ activism, which laid the groundwork, goes largely unrecognized. The public often heralds major movements and marches as a new or never before seen moment in activism. These moments almost always have a historical precedent. And this precedent is often set by women.

Their agenda decried the complicity of the state in racist violence against black women. Their goal was the elimination of all forms of oppression, which could not be achieved without a public reckoning with the effect of racial violence on African American women. Like today, the Sojourners lived in a world where campaigns against racist violence often centered around black male bodies, lives, and experiences. And, like today, they were at the vanguard of protests that asserted that black lives matter. We would do well to follow their model that shows us that we can’t remake the police force without addressing the effects of racial violence on African American women and  that African American women were and remain at the forefront of advocating for this reckoning.

[1] “The Sojourners for Truth and Justice,” Folder 17, Box 4, Louise Thompson Patterson Papers, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

[2] “Letter from B. Richardson to the President September 25, 1951,” “Letter from B. Richardson to Mr. Alexander Pace, Secretary of War, September 25, 1951,” “Letter from B. Richardson to Dean Acheson, Secretary of State, September 25, 1951,” Folder 17, Box 12, Louise Thompson Patterson Papers.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For an overview of the Sojourners see: Erik S. McDuffie, “A “New Freedom Movement of Negro Women”: Sojourning for Truth and Justice, and Human Rights in the Early Cold War” Radical Historical Review (Spring 2008): 81-106.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer is an Assistant Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University. Her book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, is the first intellectual history of women in the black power movement. Follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer.

Comments on “Black Women March on Washington: The Sojourners for Truth and Justice and Black Women’s Lives Matter

  • I really enjoyed this piece. The contribution of African American women to the Civil Rights Movement and the importance of intersectionality is often forgotten, so articles like this are much appreciated.

    I have just started my own blog (https://voicesunsilenced.wordpress.com). It’s a growing collection of fictional responses to significant events and legislation in African American history, as I also feel that the black voice has been suppressed for too long. Feel free to visit the site and let me know your thoughts.

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