There is always a catalyst for any movement, and for the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, it started with a poem.
Beah Richards (Beulah Richardson), an actor perhaps best known for her work in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, wrote “A Black Woman Speaks of White Womanhood, of White Supremacy, of Peace” in 1950, and first performed it at the American People’s Peace Congress, “a radical multiracial peace network that the U.S. State Department denounced for allegedly following the Communist Party line,” in 1951. In the poem, sociologist Cynthia Fabrizio Pelak explains, Richards “evokes early black women activists such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Ida B. Wells, rendering their work and calls for freedom and justice pertinent to the issues of the mid-twentieth century.”
Throughout the sweeping poem, Richards connected race, gender, and class for a crowd of 500 women at the Peace Congress.
“I speak not mockingly
but I fought for freedom,
I’m fighting now for our unity.
We are women all,
and what wrongs you murders me
and eventually marks your grave
so we share a mutual death at the hand of tyranny.”
“I would that the poor among you could have
seen through the scheme
and joined hands with me,
Then, we being the majority, could long ago have rescued our wasted lives.”
The reception was overwhelming, and the Women’s Workshop helped her publish it as a pamphlet. This eventually brought Richards to another realm—as a cofounder of the civil rights organization Sojourners for Peace and Justice, which used “A Black Woman Speaks” as a framework for its efforts.
The poem illuminated the oppression Black women faced because they were Black women. As Pelak writes, “Richards’ writing from the 1950s demonstrates that although the term intersectionality may have been coined in the late 1980s, the theorizing of intersecting systems of inequalities was not new.”
Activist and educator Louise Thompson Patterson approached Richards after hearing her poem to ask her if she’d be interested in forming a political group. Other founding Sojourners included author and activist Shirley Graham Du Bois, as well as Charlotta Bass, a newspaper publisher and later the first Black woman nominated for vice president. Richards’s poem had been the spark.
As historian Ashley D. Farmer writes, the organization “developed a Communist, black nationalist, and feminist agenda to end black women’s oppression.” Several Sojourners, including Richards, were put under years-long government surveillance under suspicion of being Communists.
One issue that galvanized the organization was the release of Rosa Ingram, a Black Georgia sharecropper who was attacked by a neighboring white sharecropper. Two of her sons came to her defense, killing her attacker. Despite their pleading self-defense, the court found them guilty of murder and sentenced all three to death following a trial that lasted a single day. As the Sojourners wrote, “[We are] an all Negro woman’s organization dedicated to the cause of winning complete freedom and liberty for Negro Americans, but specifically and presently to fight for the release of Rosa Ingram from a Georgia prison.”
Despite advancing ideas that are still active today, the Sojourners were short-lived, dissolving in 1952. But the group’s impact is still felt. As Farmer notes, “the Sojourners became part of African Americans’ postwar Pan-Africanist front through their anti-apartheid work,” and this work laid the groundwork for future movements.
“What will you do?
Will you fight with me?
White supremacy is your enemy and mine,
So be careful when you talk with me.
Remind me not of my slavery, I know it well
but rather tell me of your own,
Remember, you have never known me.”
Beah Richards, Pelak acknowledges, “is not a name that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of feminist theorists of the twentieth century,” but her poem “gives voice to black women’s experiences and ideas.”