Why you should care
America has made great strides in race relations in the last 50 years. But the past still echoes, and if we don’t listen closely, we’ll be doomed to repeat our mistakes.
Death brushed Ruby Sales when she was 17. Brushed, because someone took the bullet meant for her. The experience muted her for months, but now — nearly 50 years later — Sales is roaring against racially charged violence in a way she wishes she could have as a teenager.
Before Sales could grasp what was happening, she was staring down the barrel of a shotgun.
Sales grew up in the segregated South, the daughter of the Rev. Joseph Sales and Willie Mae Sales, both forceful advocates for racial equality. Born and raised in Columbus, Georgia, Sales went to all-black schools where the teachers created “a training ground for citizenship, for creativity and for scholarship,” as she described it in an interview with the Library of Congress.
She was precocious. At 16, she enrolled at Tuskegee University, the all-black college in central Alabama. The year was 1963, and the civil rights movement was in full swing all around her. Montgomery, home of the bus boycotts of the 1950s, was some 30 miles away; Selma, where marchers were beaten on Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, an hour and a half drive.
Sales had other things on her mind. “I was running around Tuskegee trying to be a beatnik,” she says with a laugh.
That changed when leading activist Stokely Carmichael came to campus and encouraged Tuskegee students to show their solidarity. Sales joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and began helping organize African-American voter drives in nearby Lowndes County. In 1965, she and several other members of SNCC were arrested there for participating in a voting rights demonstration and locked up in the nearby Hayneville county jail. Released a few days later, Sales and three companions walked over to a convenience store to buy soda.
Before Sales could grasp what was happening, she was staring down the barrel of a shotgun. Tom Coleman, a part-time deputy sheriff and white supremacist, had his gun aimed right at Sales. But at the last minute, a fellow SNCC activist, 26-year-old white seminarian Jonathan Daniels, pushed her away from the assassin and was shot and killed instead.
I chose this issue [of police violence against blacks] … to be the penultimate statement of my work, because I know the trauma of even witnessing that situation.
It was an act that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would call “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.” Sales was bowled over, traumatized. “When Jonathan was killed, I was mute for months,” she tells OZY.
She managed to speak up at Coleman’s trial months later, despite the white vigilantes who came to her family’s house and threatened to kill her. Though she had no expectation that the all-white jury would hold Coleman accountable, she was determined to testify — including to deny suggestions she and Daniels had had a sexual relationship and that Daniels had threatened Coleman. Coleman was ultimately acquitted.
Now 66, Sales is a widely honored Episcopal theologian; the shooting became a touchstone for decades of civil rights work. In 2001, she founded SpiritHouse, a nonprofit social justice organization that works to bring communities together across racial and gender divides. It includes the Jonathan Daniels and Samuel Younge Institute for Racial Justice to train “a new generation of peace and justice workers.”
But only recently has she returned to the issue of racism and extrajudicial violence in the police ranks — and the way she tells it, it was by happenstance. In 2008, she ran across an article on Billey Joe Johnson, a 17-year-old from Lucedale, Mississippi, suspected of being killed by local police at a traffic stop in 2008, “and went down to Mississippi to learn more.”
“I am stunned that 49 years after Jonathan’s death, we are right back where we were.”
Since then, SpiritHouse has investigated and raised awareness around dozens of cases where African-Americans — of all ages and both genders — have been killed at the hands of police. Sales calls extrajudicial police violence against blacks “a deep American problem.” Earlier this week, she traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, to meet with “leaders in Ferguson and young people about the next step forward and the way SpiritHouse may be a supporter” in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing.
For Sales, the work has meant coming full circle. “I chose this issue, which was important to my life at 17 years old, to be the penultimate statement of my work, because I know the trauma of even witnessing that situation,” she says. “I know the tyranny of the criminal justice system.”
Back in 1965, “I had no contacts in the world, a Southern black girl, and really didn’t have the wherewithal or understanding to push forward the case of Jonathan Daniels.”
Now, “I’m no longer 17. I’ve had years of experience bringing issues to the attention of the public.”
Sales says her visit to Ferguson confirmed to her that the United States still has a lot of work to do to break free of the cycle of violence that dogs African-Americans’ relations with the police. “I am stunned that 49 years after Jonathan’s death, we are right back where we were.”