In honor of MLK day this past Monday, I’ve been thinking for a few weeks about dedicating this entry to Betty Reid Soskin. I have to admit, though, it’s been difficult to get going, and as I began pulling quotes and details to share, I finally realized why it’s been hard. She is damn intimidating!
A five foot three, soft-spoken 97-year-old might not seem particularly overwhelming. For those lucky enough to have heard her speak, you know also that she is extremely approachable and willing to share both her thoughts and listen to yours. But what she has accomplished in her life makes clear that this woman is a force of nature. What she lacks in height, she has made up for with a lifetime of copious activism and the promotion of American ideals of liberty and equal opportunity.
Chock Full O’ History
Here are just a few portions of her remarkable life story. She comes from Cajun, Creole, Spanish, and African ancestors, with a great-grandmother born into slavery and an ancestry that stretches from the time of witches to Dred Scott through the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter. She came to California from New Orleans and served in a segregated Jim Crow union hall in Richmond California during World War II. Opening a gospel-themed record store in Berkeley with her husband, she raised a family, experiencing redlining in Berkeley and both subtle and overt racism in the suburbs of Walnut Creek.
She marched for freedom in the Freedom Summer of 1964 and was active enough in politics to attend the 1972 Democratic Convention as a McGovern delegate. She marched in opposition to the Vietnam war, wrote songs for peace and freedom in that other highly charged politicized era, and was active with the local Unitarian church. Working over the decades for other local politicians, she was in the right place at the right time to help plan the Rosie the Riveter National Monument in Richmond. She was ardent about using the opportunity to tell all the stories–not just about the heroic women helping the war effort but also about the Japanese internment camps in the nearby Sierras and about the sailors and workers, mostly black men, killed in explosions at Port Chicago. Given that her own history spanned many cultures and progressive causes, it was no surprise that she was able to put a stamp on this exhibit.
At age 85, she became a National Park ranger representing the Monument and nowadays her lectures are by reservation only, booked weeks in advance. I should not say exactly today, though, since as a government worker, she is on the mandatory furlough imposed by the Administration That Shall Not Be Named.
Writer, Storyteller, Songwriter
Soskin has also developed a powerful style as a writer. She credits her blog, CBreaux, with giving her courage to write more. Her amazing autobiography: Sign My Name to Freedom: A Memoir of a Pioneering Life was published last February. The stories alone are interesting in their own right, but her voice carries both the grace of the thoughtful academic and the immediacy of your next door neighbor. The combination is profound:
There’s the piece that serves as an important backdrop to my childhood and youth — that piece where, underlying everything else was the rage that would go unrecognized for decades. Rage around the lack of fulfillment of America’s promise of “Liberty and justice for all” as recited regularly in the Pledge of Allegiance, or, as those stated in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. …
There is no Office of Fulfillment, Commission on Fairness, Department of Peace, Deity, Avatar, Bureau, Committee, Board or Secretary of Fulfillment. That must come from us all. And — it was clear that — just as I’d crossed some threshold in mid-life when I claimed my right to self-identify; to stop waiting to be shaped by the men I’d chosen, I’ve always been free to be self-defined; to claim my right to express my woman-ness. It was simply that the culture in which I was living had failed to inform me of this important right, so I’d lived a life of being simply negative space to the positive space provided by the men in my life.
–Betty Reid Soskin, blog post January 1, 2019
The Legend Grows
As it has throughout her life, even adversity has carried within it seeds of triumph. She received a presidential coin from Obama after lighting the White House Christmas tree, a recognition of her status as “oldest” park ranger but also from her life of dedication to social justice. However, six months later, a man broke into her home while she was sleeping. While many accounts said she hid in the bathroom after he assaulted her, she told Glamour magazine that she fought him off by grabbing “the family jewels.” He took off, though with the stolen award and other belongings. She was only away from her job at the National Park for a few weeks and, just as quickly, Obama replaced the coin.
What started as a typical home invasion story became a symbol of something entirely different: even at 95, you can fight them off.
Everything I’ve ever done, everything I’ve ever learned. I’m using all of that stuff right now. And all the women that reside in me are now operative.–Soskins in Glamour magazine
Read More Because There Is So Much More
Maybe this recap will suffice, but I urge you to look for more including:
- Soskin’s blog at CBreaux Speaks
- Videos of Soskin speaking at Makers.com
- Her book: Sign My Name to Freedom
- Profiles at Berkeleyside, Glamour magazine
Even at 97, her bio continues to be updated. Since the local news story about the presidential coin incident, she has received an honorary doctorate from Mills College, published the biography, and has helped a variety of film projects which include her. She has been resurrecting some of the forgotten protests songs, singing in concerts, touring to promote the book, and, when the parks reopen, will be back to speak to rooms packed with visitors to talk about the Rosie Monument.
Betty Reid Soskin is who I want to be when I grow up.