When Ruby Sales declared that “The movement saved my life,” she was expressing a truth that became a testimony for many of the Veterans of Hope, especially those who had entered the southern freedom movement as teenagers or young adults. Their courageous participation in an extraordinary social movement that transformed a people, a region and a nation opened an awesome set of possibilities and directions for their own lives. It provided a cross-generational fellowship of hope and commitment that they never forgot. Certainly, this was the case for the thoughtful, articulate black woman who grew up in Columbus, Georgia, the daughter of Reverend Joseph Sales and Mrs. Willie Mae Sales.
Born in 1948, Ruby Sales was nurtured in a small town African American community which organized its life around its strongest institutions — family, church and school. When Ruby graduated from high school, she was encouraged to attend Tuskegee University in Alabama — originally founded by Booker T. Washington as Tuskegee Institute. By the time Ruby entered the school in the fall of 1963, Tuskegee had begun to experience the challenge and energy of the freedom movement as it rose across the state and all through the south.
At Tuskegee, Ruby met the Movement most directly through the audacious young community organizers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, or “Snick”). By the fall of 1964 with the support of one of her favorite professors, Sales had joined the SNCC forces, moving regularly between the campus and nearby Lowndes County, where a voter registration project was focused. There she also met some of the remarkable local community people who adopted “the children” of SNCC as their leaders and wards. (At age sixteen, Ruby Sales was both child and leader in the Lowndes County freedom movement.)
Working in this context, Ruby Sales came very close to losing her life, and yet too, it was saved in more ways than one. Following the momentous winter of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, Ruby became even more deeply involved in Lowndes County (Selma was the county seat). For many decades, the white supremacist power structure had used terrorism, legal manipulations and fierce economic coercion to brutally deny black citizens their right to democratic participation. By the mid-1960s, in a situation where that power structure was being persistently challenged, Ruby and co-workers knew that they were courting real dangers, including, possibly, death. (Memory of the murders of civil rights workers, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb were still fresh in Alabama in the aftermath of the march. The dynamite from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham still echoed.)
In August, 1965, Ruby herself faced the terrifying muzzle of a shotgun when a white shopowner in Hayneville, Alabama took aim at her and fired. In the split second it took to push Ruby aside, her friend and co-worker, Jonathan Daniels, took the shot meant for her and fell to his death on the ground. Ruby was so shaken by the events that she didn’t speak for many weeks. Determined, nonetheless to be a witness at the trial of the murderer, Ruby defied death threats and allowed the church songs of her childhood to sing strength into her heart. She testified, only to see the assailant acquitted by an all-white jury. (The blatant injustice of the decision became the primary basis for a series of successful challenges to the segregated jury selection system of the South.)
Not long after these experiences, Ruby left the South. But she did not leave the fight for the expansion of democracy. By the end of the 1960s she was in New York City, still working on behalf of the movement, now experiencing all the strange nuances of the north’s interpretation of racial democracy. In 1971 she completed her college education at New York’s Manhattanville College, a long way from home.
In New York Ruby searched for a focal point for her life that would replace the centering influence that home, church and school had played in her early life and that she had later experienced in the enlivening community of the Movement. For a while, Marxism seemed to provide that centering role, but it could not carry the deep and soulful songs of her childhood, and did not seem able to respond to some of the most urgent emotional cries of people who needed a new life as much as a new analysis. Neither Marxism nor six years of a Princeton University graduate education in history was life-saving, and eventually Ruby found herself listening to the formidable, wisdom-bearing inner voice of Sojourner Truth. During the years at Princeton and immediately afterward, the presence of Sojourner Truth became an increasingly persistent force in Ruby’s inner life, engaging her in soul-level conversations about her purpose and direction, and the many gifts she had to share.
Listening, sharing and searching, Ruby taught for several years at colleges and universities like Spelman College in Atlanta, Bucknell in Pennsylvania and the University of Maryland. While she taught, she remained active in the growing networks of activist women of color. At times she felt a tension between her work in academia and her work in the women’s movement – but she was determined to bring her whole self to whatever she was called to do. Then, Ruby made a major decision. Closely following Sojourner, and her own spirit of hope, she decided to enroll at the theological school which Jonathan Daniels had been attending at the time of his participation in the Movement. From 1994 to 1998 Ruby was a student at the Episcopal Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There she struggled with the meaning of her calling as a woman, as a Christian, as a prophet of hope and as a child of the freedom movement, still choosing not to be formally ordained.
Early in the year 2000, Ruby Sales became the director of the St. Stephens Community Center in Washington, D.C., a church-based social justice center, where she says she believes she has worked out “the ordination thing” in an informal but very real way. Meanwhile, she continues to envision the organizing of a “Women of All Colors” movement, partly in response to Sojourner’s call, partly in response to all the sisters she has met on her own journey, and partly in continuing quest for faithfulness to the community and the movement that saved (and still saves) her life.
Ruby is currently founder and director of SpiritHouse, a national organization that combines research, the arts, education, spiritual reflection and community-building to unite diverse people in work toward a just a nonviolent world.
Co-Chairperson, Veterans of Hope Project
Growing Up in the Black Church
Religion for me growing up in Columbus, Georgia, was the ground that I stood on, that positioned us to stand against the wind. The winds of segregation, the winds of a society that by it’s very nature conspired to render us very, very small and religion was the place that you stood. It was an equalizer that positioned you face to face with those who were your oppressors and turned them from oppressors into human beings and transformed you into more than just an oppressed person but also in a full human being.
So, when I think of religion I think of it as a way in which you live, as a way of being engaged, as a way of relating to each other. It was the thing that moved us from one position in life to the other. It was the transforming agent that transformed us, that allowed us to walk through the wilderness and come out feeling brand new, our hearts transformed and our feet with a new walk and a new name in life. It moved us. It gave us hope. It was the repository of Black memory in a society that did not give us access to secular history. So it was in religion it was in the songs that were our memory, where you could go back and be connected to another generation.
I remember growing up in the black church and listening to the songs and somehow feeling that in the moment that I heard “Way Down Yonder in the Valley So Low I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray.” At that moment I was no longer an eight-year-old child, I felt really connected to my Grandmother so even today when I sing that song, I don’t just sing it in my voice. There is a rattle in my throat that is as deep and old as my Grandmother’s voice. It connects me. It allows me to move from one historical period to the next to really get to the souls of where Black people were. It is in that moment through song that I am able to feel something other than myself. I become a part of a community. I become a part of a struggle. Also listening to that song I thought, you know, freedom is a constant struggle.
Entering the Movement
Harding: Think now a little bit about how you got from that community to Tuskegee Institute. What accounts for your making that leap?
Sales: It really wasn’t a decision that I made. It was really a decision that my community made. Because my high school teachers had gone to Tuskegee and thought that was really a good place. So I was strongly encouraged to go to Tuskegee and I went to Tuskegee at the tail end of 1964, at the heart of a tremendous transformation that was taking place at Tuskegee. Tuskegee, as most of you probably know, is the school that Booker T. Washington founded.
Harding:When you went to Tuskegee, when you were sent to Tuskegee, what did you think you were going for? To do what, to become what? What was on your mind?
Sales: What I was going to do, I wasn’t sure but I had read Virginia Woolf and I knew that somehow I wanted to be a writer and Greenwich Village sounded really exciting to me, so I imagined myself at Tuskegee — if you can imagine a sixteen-year-old kid at Tuskegee, with two long braids and running around barefoot trying to be a beatnik. That’s what I was doing at Tuskegee when the movement discovered me. I was being a beatnik.
Harding: How did the movement discover this braided beatnik?
Sales: My professor, Jean Wiley, she herself was deeply involved with the civil rights movement and had made a connection with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and that organization had had a tremendous impact on the President of our student body, Gwen Patton. So the students at Tuskegee, in conjunction with our professors, decided that we would march to the Capitol in Montgomery to raise questions about justice. So I was very much involved in that first demonstration, in organizing students and getting ourselves to Montgomery. I had some sense of a call and so the movement in some real ways gave me a place to live out that call.
The Death of Jonathan Daniels
Harding: Sister Ruby, do you mind at all being identified in so many people’s minds as the woman who was there with Jonathan Daniels, rather than as Ruby Sales, that creative woman spirit, yourself?
Sales: First of all, that woman who was with Jonathan Daniels is also a part of who Ruby Sales is. That has never been something that I’ve had to wrestle with Black people. They’ve always known, in some real ways, that Ruby Sales is a very complex person who does many different things. I think oftentimes where I’ve met that image of me as being an extension of Jonathan is oftentimes in White communities who have a very difficult time envisioning Black people, first of all, and secondarily, can only see Jonathan’s life and not understand that I was also in Lowndes County because I had the same kind of commitment that Jonathan had. I think it’s important for me despite what people do with that, to, with some real integrity, own up to the fact that I was the girl there and Jonathan did save my life. That is an indisputable, undeniable fact.
Harding: Would you mind just telling us how that happened that you were at that doorway with Jonathan Daniels that day in August 1965?
Sales: We had been in jail. We’d been arrested because young black teenagers in Fort Deposit [Alabama] wanted to have a demonstration. So we demonstrated on one Saturday. We were arrested amid men who were armed with baseball bats, guns, garbage cans, containers, holders, caps, lids and we were all thrown on the back of a garbage truck and we were taken to the county jail in Hayneville, Alabama. We were put in jail for a week. Jonathan was among those of us who was arrested. After a week, we were let out of jail which was very, very suspicious for me. We were told that we were being released on our recognizance, on our own word. I didn’t believe that. So they let us out of jail and there was no one there to meet us. It was one of those hot, southern, sticky days when you can look down at the cement and see little rings, little waves coming up from the pavement, the heat literally vibrating from the pavement. We were hot. We were thirsty. There was a little store on the corner, a store that we had gone in many times. So someone decided that Jonathan, Father Morrisroe, Joyce Bailey and myself, that we should go and get the sodas for the group. We started over to get the sodas and, for a moment we hesitated, but we continued and got to the door and there was Tom Coleman standing there with a shotgun, threatening, first of all, “Bitch, I’ll blow your brains out,” because I was in front and Jonathan was behind me. Things happened so fast. The next thing I knew there was a pull and I fell back.
One of the very disturbing things for me as a historian is the revisionist spirit that went into the civil rights movement and the kinds of ways in which young people have been robbed of a positive image of that experience. That was very deadly for their development. It creates a kind of nihilism, a kind of turning inwardly that’s really… One of the places where white kids can really go and draw on and have an alternative view to the racist visions that they give in society about who they are and who other people are, is in the civil rights movement, in the labor movement, in the abolitionist movement. If you take away those moments, then the only image that people have before them are racist images and not the images of what’s possible in terms of our standing side by side with each other, but an image of a divisive world where white is on top and all other people are on the bottom. It’s important that white kids, as well as black kids, as well as brown kids, get a different image. And you have to be able to pass on that sense to children so that they can also struggle. Yes, we are living in a society that is in deep trouble. June Jordan calls it a troubling in the American soul. But it’s important that we pass along to our young the possibility of what can change through struggle.
When we devalue that and say that we haven’t moved anywhere, that has a tremendous resounding affect on the young. It robs them of the possibility of hope. It says that things can’t change, so I really need to hold up that change even as I critique and say that, while there has been one kind of change, we are also dealing with other kinds of oppressions. We are held in the grip of a technological society that invades our private life, that reduces us to some sense of smallness, that robs us of our connection, that takes away our ability to be intimate in ways that I think are healthy and whole. And unfortunately you can’t change it while still holding on to absolute power. I’m sorry. It’s more than a “feel good” that we’re after here. We’re altering very social structures in society and what white people have to believe is that they can give up white supremacy and white power, and still be somebody.
A Word to Seminarians
Harding: Is there any word that you would give to these sisters and brothers who sense a call to stand tall and move forward in faith toward a new and just and compassionate society?
Sales: The people of God and the health and the well-being of the people of God should be at the center of our vision and I’ll just tell a little story about it. One of the things that happen when you are in divinity school is that you get–and you are in process, you get focussed on the caller and you get focussed on doing the right things to please the Bishop. You begin to tell people what they want to hear moreso than what you really believe and in some real ways you become disingenuous. I had always thought that there was nothing I loved enough that I was willing to become disingenuous for and then I got to divinity school and I realized that there was something I was willing to do that for and that was the collar. It was a moment in my life where I saw my own weakness. I realized that I’m no different from anyone else. It was a humbling moment in my own life. So that I think that we have to really make sure that we’re not moved by the collar and the power that that brings. And the other thing that we must never do is lie to the people. We must never have an exegeses that we share among our peers and tell the congregation other things on Sunday, that we must do the radical work with our own congregations that we share with each other. I guess, finally, the most radical act that you can do is to tear the church upside down and turn it right again, is to tear it up. Set it on fire.
Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Random House, 1967.
Vicki Crawford, Jacqueline Rouse and Barbara Woods,Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994
Charles W. Eagles. Outside Agitator: Jonathan Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
June Jordan. Affirmative Acts: Political Essays. New York: Doubleday, 1998
Belinda Robnett. How Long? How Long?: African American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997
William J. Schneider. American Martyr: The Jonathan Daniels Story. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1992
Juan Williams. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-65. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
Video and DVD
“Here I Am, Send Me’: The Journey of Jonathan Daniels”, executive producers Larry Benaquist and Bill Sullivan, 60 min., 2000 (Available from the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities, 60 Ship Street, Providence, R.I., 02903)
“Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years”, Blackside, Inc, 1987 (Available from PBS Home Video — online at www.pbs.org)
“A Foot Soldier for Freedom”, CBS News Interview with Ruby Sales, June 22, 2000. link
SpiritHouse: The Jonathan Daniels and Samuel Younge Forum for Social Justice is an organization founded and directed by Ruby Sales. The forum uses art, education, research, action, and reflection to build non-violent social justice and peace movements that repair the harm that systematic injustice does to people’s lives. firstname.lastname@example.org
Civil Rights Movement Veterans. This is a web site for, and about, veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s. It has biographical information for civil rights veterans who include Ruby Sales, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, and Charles Sherrod.link