The roles of politics and social protests are uniquely different, but they have each played equally pivotal roles throughout American history in the push for positive social change. African American women have long helped lead that two-front charge, and they continue to do so today at risk to themselves, agreed activists Maya Rockeymoore Cummings and Mason alumna Aja Clark during the 21st Annual Sojourner Truth Lecture.
The virtual discussion was moderated by Yevette Richards Jordan, a faculty member in Mason’s Department of History and Art History, the Women and Gender Studies Program and African and African American Studies Program within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“Politics and protests are actually complimentary,” said Cummings, the president and CEO of a Washington, D.C.-based policy firm, former head of the Maryland Democratic Party and the widow of late U.S. Congressman Elijah Cummings. “Protests are actually one of the five freedoms described within the Constitution, certainly along with freedom of assembly, speech, press and religion. You are allowed to protest your government.”
Clark, who graduated from Mason in 2017 with a BA in integrative studies and minors in social justice and African and African American studies, was among those who took to the streets to protest in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last spring. She credited the protests for pushing the agenda forward when politicians were either hamstrung by process or simply lacked the political will to do so.
History would suggest that has often been the case; the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights of 1965 are just some examples that can largely be attributed to hard-to-ignore protests in the streets that eventually prompted legislative action at the federal level.
“Politics are very important for where we are as a nation,” said Clark, a reproductive justice educator and the creative director and founder of the Black Feminist Freshman Orientation, which prepares women for college, “but I definitely think protests are equally as important, if not more important.”
Cummings called role of protests “incredibly important in our society,” but pointed out that the two different approaches often work in unison as protesters stay in contact with the politicians who support them, raise money for them and mobilize voters.
And much like Sojourner Truth, who was in the nation’s capital crusading for social justice a hundred years before the March on Washington, African American women have helped lead the way in this latest push for equality.
As a result, many who followed in Truth’s footsteps have been disproportionately targeted with nasty and racist comments, as well as threats of violence.
Mason President Gregory Washington lauded them and the many others whose efforts seek to forge a better America.
“We are forever inspired by Truth and others whose relentless quest for freedom and equity put ideas in our heads, passion in our hearts and winds in our sails in our pursuits of social justice,” Washington said.
Both Clark and Cummings, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2020, were recognized with Sojourner Truth Awards prior to the discussion’s start. The discussion panelists conducted a virtual meet-and-greet with both students and faculty and staff prior to the event’s start.
Former Mason faculty member Angie Hattery was also honored with the inaugural Sojourner Truth Faculty Award for her efforts in making the series one of the most successful and longest-running at Mason.
In addition, the Prince William County Community Foundation was honored with a Sojourner Truth Award for its efforts in feeding local families in need.
The event was sponsored by the Women and Gender Studies Program, the African and African American Studies Program, University Life and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Interdisciplinary Programs Fund.
The program can be seen in its entirety here.