Ruby Sales was a student activist at Tuskegee and SNCC organizer in Alabama and Georgia from 1963-1966. She is founder and directory of Spirit House, a human rights organization in Washington, DC.]
The Montgomery Demonstrations
The Picket Line
Assassination of Jonathan Daniels
The Trial of Tom Coleman
After Lowndes County
Reflections: Spirituality and Justice
Divinity School and Spirit House
Going Back to Lowndes
Interviewed by Jean Wiley and Bruce Hartford.
Ruby: I was born in Alabama, 32 miles from Birmingham, in a little small town called Jemison, Alabama. But I didn't live there except summers when I would go and visit my grandparents. I basically grew up in Fort Benning and Columbus, Georgia.
Bruce: Your parents were in the military?
Ruby: My father was in the military, yes.
Ruby: As I think about growing up in Columbus GA. I think about the duality, on the one hand being able to go on the army base which is where all of our business was taken care of by my family and that base was integrated, and then leaving the army base and coming to a segregated Columbus, GA which was only 12 miles from the base.
All of the movie theaters were located on the army base, all of my doctors were at Martin Army Hospital or the old Fort Benning hospital, and the swimming pool was an integrated swimming pool.
So that was one world, and then I came to Columbus GA where my high school was not integrated. So, basically I grew up between these two worlds. So I had some sense even before I went to Tuskegee of a society where Black and white people did some business together, so it wasn't an alien concept to me coming from Columbus. So I think that was a unique experience in the heart of the segregated South growing up between an army base and a typical southern town.
Jean: You are one of the few people who were born and raised in the south that we have interviewed. I was wondering if you can recall before you went to college how you saw the Movement growing. And your thoughts, or the thoughts of the people around you, family and laborers and friends, as it was building.
Ruby: Some of my teachers at school, especially our civics teacher and history teacher, were very vocal about their support for Rosa Parks. But many people in Columbus, even in the height of the Movement my hometown tended to be very conservative. They didn't even want Martin Luther King to come in and speak at First African Baptist Church.
I grew up in a church called First African Baptist Church, which was the premier church for the Black bourgeoisie. And while you had a lot of Black people in that church in leadership positions in the community, I never got a sense that they took a leadership role in the Movement. Although someone tells me now that the organized demonstrations, the boycott of the buses, came from First African Baptist Church. So, I wasn't aware of that, but someone from Columbus recently told me that.
But I think that if I'm really honest my high school years were sort of preoccupied with being a cheerleader and being a typical teenager, and while I did rebellious things like many [Black] teenagers in the South, getting on the buses and getting in the front, and we had this thing where we would get on the bus and pretend that we were deformed and sit down, and get off at the stop, and run and laugh about it, or go to one of the most exquisite shops in Columbus and ask for a bikini with our bodies all contorted and twisted, and those kinds of little childish rebellions, but beyond that I didn't have a growing sense of the presence of Rosa Parks or the presence of the Montgomery Movement.
In some ways we lived in a very insulated world. I did have a sense of a larger critique from my father who was a part of the Korean War, and was a generation of Black men who came back from that war very much effected by it both spiritually and mentally. He would constantly go through the house critiquing the inequity of the American system, and militarism, so I grew up with that constant hum in my head from my father. But he was one of the few people who was as vocal about racism and injustice. And because it was my father, I think sometimes you tend to dismiss your parents when they are on this tirade every day. (laughter). It was just another day that he was saying the same thing that he normally said. But I realized later on that I had been affected by it.
Bruce: He was a career NCO?
Bruce: What about the sit-ins and freedom rides?
Ruby: I was really young when those things happened, and like I said, I don't think our community of the adults were galvanized by that or really affected by it. There was not a conversation that they sat down and talked about with the younger members of the community, so we didn't have any sort of generational sense of where our community stood on these issues. I mean, there were moments that the community was really thrilled and had a response, Autherine Lucy when she tried to enter into the University of Alabama. That became a hot topic in the community.
Of course, Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Students really became, and another incident that became a focal point in our community about civil rights or freedom was one of the doctors in Columbus who tried to develop a movement in Columbus was killed, Dr. Brewer, in his office on Front Street. Well, of course, that was the talk. So that we knew as young people that he had been killed for going up against the power structure.
Bruce: There was also that Black Colonel that was shot.
Ruby: Yes, that was a major thing, Lemuel Penn, yes. Driving through Georgia.
Bruce: Ambushed by the Klan.
Ruby: Yes, absolutely. And so of course being an army town, that really made the, you know, came to the level of consciousness in the community and made many military men very angry.
Bruce: How did the white military people react to that?
Ruby: Well, while we attended some of the same public venues, there was not the kind of cross socialization where we would have that kind of conversation. I don't mean to imply that all that was happening in Fort Benning, that some how racism or white supremacy had been collapsed. There still was that great distance. It was just that the federal law said you had access to public facilities. That did not generate friendships or that kind of discussion between Black and white people. There was still that social distance.
Bruce: Tell us how you got involved in the Movement.
Ruby: I was a student at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee Alabama. And Gwen Patton who was President of the Student body, actually the first elected woman of the student body, played a major role in galvanizing students to participate in a march of Tuskegee students to Montgomery. And of course, that was supported by the younger faculty and at that time Dean Phillips. So that's how I got involved.
Bruce: And that was the march around the time of the Selma voting rights campaign?
Ruby: It was after the Selma to Montgomery march.
Jean: It was supposed to have been part of the Selma Montgomery march.
As described in Selma & the March to Montgomery, Tuskegee students demonstrated in Montgomery after the "Bloody Sunday" beating of the Selma marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge.]
Bruce: Was going on that march your first step?
Ruby: Well, no, my consciousness is being raised on many levels because students are talking about, because Gwen Patton is coming around to the dormitories, and for the first time this becomes a conversation in the public square of Tuskegee. The whole question of "Are you or are you not," "What do you do, and what do you not do?" And then one of the most influential moments for me, and she'll probably be very embarrassed about me saying this, moments for me as a student, was in my English 101 class taught by Jean Wiley.
Bruce: Ah, the notorious....
Ruby: Yeah. (laughter) And for the first time in my life I read James Baldwin, and I can't tell you what an impact James Baldwin had on my life and it wasn't even one of his best essays. It was "Stranger at the Gate" when he goes to Switzerland to live and he's the only Black person. And so that essay had a profound impact on me and just that class where we were being asked to analyze and write things that made sense, not silly things, and I had never been asked to think. I mean, people had said that I could think but the irony was no one really asked me to. (laughter)
Bruce: You don't want to ask kids to think because Lord knows what would happen if you asked kids to think.
Ruby: (laughter) And so Samuel Younge and I and a few other students at Tuskegee tended to hang out together in his Volkswagen and also there was a pond where we tended to go down to drink Kataba Pink. And Samuel got bit by the freedom bug, and if you knew Samuel when he was bitten by something, he insisted that everybody else, he couldn't stop talking about it.
Well, he didn't really have to convince me a whole lot. I really became curious also. First of all, I'd never seen a Black woman in a position that Gwen Patton was carrying out, I mean she had some authority, she had some real clout on the campus. And she had clout not because she was a beauty queen but because she was talking about issues. And I always found that pretty impressive. So that just kind of blew my Columbus Georgia mind. It fed in to me something that was really deeply repressed in me about feminism, about racism, those kind of issues.
Bruce: We have a piece from her on the website called Insurgent Memories. She says she ran [for student body President] in order to raise those issues and bring the Movement...
Ruby: Well, immediately after she ran, she began to carry out her agenda.
Jean: And she really was, thinking back on it, she really was a force. She was a whirlwind,
Ruby: A whirlwind.
Jean: She was everywhere. She took authority. No one was willing to hand that over to her, certainly not the administration. She took it.
Ruby: And one of the things that was very impressive as Jean is talking about that, there was another thing that she did that was very important for students, I think. She was very adept at getting the administration to do what they, we actually saw a student win battles and we actually saw things happen that we thought would never happen.
You have to understand that when I went to Tuskegee we [still] had parietals. You couldn't even have a man in the dormitory. You couldn't even go downtown without your parents' consent. They had a curfew. If you were not in by 9 o'clock you could get expelled from school. In other words, we were still living under that old system.
"Parietals" were campus regulations governing the out-of-class, off-campus, life and behavior of students, particularly women. Until parietal rules were overturned by the student revolts of the 1960s, most colleges, North and South, operated under the doctrine of "In loco parentis" meaning that the college assumed parental authority over students regardless of their age. Even military veterans in their mid-20s had to obey parietal regulations or be expelled. A major focus of parietal rules was to ensure that female students did not talk to "undesirable" (non-college) males, or engage in "immoral behavior." Sex outside of marriage or an un-wed pregnancy resulted in immediate expulsion on "moral" grounds.]
Bruce: Most of the people who read the website, probably 2/3 of them are students, in public schools and college. You used the term "parietals." We three all know exactly what that means, but none of them will have the foggiest idea what that means.
Ruby: This whole business that the school was basically your parent, and that you had all of these guidelines and all of these rules governing what they thought was their jurisdiction over you. It included things like curfews, I mean it's amazing to think that you couldn't even go downtown and buy clothes as a college student without getting permission from someone.
Bruce: And if you violated them you would be expelled.
Ruby: You would be expelled. Absolutely. If you came in an hour late you would probably be put on probation the first time and the 2nd time you would be expelled, and depending on how the Dean felt about you, you might be expelled the first time.
Jean: Also though, I think part of that was a means of protecting, especially in terms of going outside the campus, it was a means of protecting the students from the larger environment of racism that hit them as soon as they stepped out of the gate. So in order to be quote "responsible caretakers," they felt that if they couldn't confront the system they better be sure that they had a tight rein on people walking out those gates.
Bruce: I'm sure that was true in the South, but these parietal rules were applied to women students, and to a lesser degree male students, all across the country. And of all races too.
Ruby: I think what Jean is saying is very very important, because don't forget the question that she is talking about is intensified in the South particularly for women. White men have always thought in the South that Black women were open season for their sexual desires. So, whereas [parietals are] rooted in the cult of "womanhood" that goes across the nation, it is intensified in this region where Black women have been treated, have not been respected. And have been treated as sexual objects, and objects of white men's desires.
And I do think that as Black women were being defeminized and made into objects of white men's desires, I think Black men were being, because when you look at the Sambo caricature, Black men, all of those characteristics that Sambo possesses are very feminine characteristics. So something was also simultaneously happening in the white public imagination with a kind of demasculization of Black men.
Ruby: [So] to go from that [old system], to make the radical move from that to going to Montgomery [to demonstrate], and also people going out into the county [to do Movement work] without any parental consent, and then coming into the lobby of the dormitory to make speeches, it really changed the social landscape at Tuskegee. In terms of what had existed for many, many, years. Because suddenly there were students at Tuskegee that you couldn't control anymore. The boundaries were being collapsed. You couldn't keep someone like Gwen Patton in that old system of getting your parents permission to go downtown. I mean, it was just kind of impossible.
Jean: One of the big battles was [against] compulsory ROTC, remember, and also compulsory chapel. Those were two of the things that you really had to break through to get to the larger issues. You had to break through those more local ones.
Ruby: Yes, so Tuskegee was being radicalized. On a very small level, gender roles were being transformed. And actually on a very subtle level who was popular, who was in and who was out, began to change at Tuskegee very slowly and gradually. Where fraternities and sororities had really been the dominating force on Tuskegee, people who had a civic voice began to have some presence in a way they had not had a presence at Tuskegee, and I think that was significant. Do you think I'm overstating that point?
Jean: No, I think that's a really good point to make. That groundwork had to be laid internal to the campus before students could move off the campus and in to the county, the rural county, and into places like Selma. A lot of groundwork, and a lot of it had to be done very fast because that was the issue when I got there. The younger teachers, all of us were new, insisting that the compulsory ROTC and the compulsory chapel had to go.
Bruce: So, Gwen, and Sammy Younge, and others are agitating...
Ruby: Bill Hall, Stokely Carmichael, I mean when SNCC comes on campus it adds another dimension.
And the other thing that I wanted to say that I think, I mean, Jean might not agree with me on this, but I think it was very important as the school itself was in the midst of transformation that the presence of young faculty was visually [apparent] to young students like myself because it gave us the courage to do what we felt needed to be done, thinking that there were faculty members on our side. And it made you feel more confident to be able to take a position if your English teacher was doing it, if Leslie Sherover was doing it. I mean that psychologically it was incredibly important. I'm not sure we would have gotten as far as we got at Tuskegee, which in some ways wasn't [that far], but the distance that we went had a lot to do with a lot of different important things coming together at the same time.
Bruce: Hunter Bear said in talking about Tougaloo [in Mississippi] that the fact that there was supportive faculty like himself, and actually at Tougaloo even administrators were supportive, had a big effect on the participation in the Jackson Movement.
Ruby: I would say that [was also true] at Tuskegee. I think what also began to happen when you are inserting different kinds of classes, and you are beginning to be introduced to some of the great voices of that time, I think something else is going on whether you ever speak it or not, I think internally you are being radicalized intellectually. I think something else is going on that is very significant here, you are being opened up and realizing how much you don't know, and how much you'd like to know. So that makes the SNCC people very exciting because they seem to know much more than what we knew at Tuskegee.
The other thing, just let me say something about this. I don't even think he'll even remember this, but Willie Peacock came to Tuskegee. And he was the first person that I ever knew who mentioned the word "Capitalism." And in talking about that, have you ever had little bells that go off in your head? It was one of those "Aha!" moments that just began to open up the floodgates for me, because once that "Aha" happened on that level then it lead to other "Ahas." I don't know if he even remembers this, but for me it was a significant moment in my own development in terms of ideas and even having a name.
That was the other thing that was important at Tuskegee. I mean, it was a place where naming became very important. It was a place where I began to understand my own name. That it was not just something I wore, "Negro" it was not just something people called me. Suddenly, I understood. I began to understand the social meaning of my name. And I think that was important for people who joined the Movement. Because we were able to not only link our names to a family, but to link our names to a history and a community. And that had not been available to us prior to that on any significant level. That had not been available.
The Montgomery Demonstrations
Well, we went to Montgomery. That was my first time on any significant level being confronted with white terrorism, and the understanding that I was not my mother's daughter, I mean that somebody would really hurt me, that those people had dogs, and they wouldn't let us go to the bathroom. The naivete that Tuskegee students possessed in our sheltered worlds was that although we understood that segregation existed, we were a product of the southern church.
For me, I literally expected that when we were singing "Come by here Lord, Come by here," I was naive enough to think that God would appear on a chariot (laughter). I'm embarrassed, I mean because I was firmly convinced of what we had been told that if you were right you would win out. And God knows, I thought we were right and they were wrong, but there they were with the horses and we certainly were not, as far as I could see, inning out when we couldn't even go to the bathroom. I don't think I went to church after that experience, I totally stopped going to church.
Bruce: Forever or...?
Ruby: No, I went to [Movement] mass meetings [in churches], but I mean as a participating member of a faith community with any sincerity, I never went again until my forties.
My first major memory at the march is, I don't know if you remember this, do you remember the moment that the students panicked with the horses...
Jean: In front of the capital...
Ruby: Yes, and you gathered us about. You probably were very afraid too, but you pretended that you were not and therefore we didn't panic. That was a really scary moment. That was very scary.
We were there for several days at the capital, hemmed in. And I remember by that time Jim Foreman had come. So the big debate raged, do you remember the debate? Whether we should return to school or whether we should stay in Montgomery. By that time, I wasn't going to go back to school. I decided to stay in Montgomery, and we were pushed up into, because one of the things that happened after we left the capital is that the police were charging, what is that major street that we were on? Jackson? It's a major street in Montgomery.
Jean: Not the one that leads up to the capital?
Ruby: I know the street, if it was said I would recognize it. But I remember this little Black lady sitting on her porch, and horses going up on people's porches and by that time we had joined forces with Alabama State students, so they were there too. And then we went into the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church. And the deacons had turned off the water, I mean turned off the heat. And there were a lot of conversations to try to get us to come out of that church. The pressure was so great to come out that my high school teacher, who had been my homeroom teacher from the 7th through 12th grade, drove from Columbus Georgia to get her students out of the church.
Bruce: And what was their explanation?
Ruby: You can understand, they knew the terrorism of the south. They were not like us, they knew that white folks would kill you. So part of it was they didn't want us to be dead, they didn't want us to get killed, they were terrified. But I didn't leave. The other students left, but she just threw up her hands and said "I knew you wouldn't listen". And from that day on I began to not listen.
Bruce: To the voices of caution?
Ruby: To the voices of caution.
And [this is] the time that's going on when Stokely is overwrought at this time, at the Montgomery airport, and starts that crying and screaming. And that's the time when Foreman, Foreman is now coming in and out of the church and playing a major role with the students and encouraging us to stay. And we were a bit shocked because we didn't imagine that the deacons at Martin Luther King's church would turn off the heat and try to starve us out. And the police were not letting anyone bring food or water into the church. And the only person who was able to break through that was [SNCC organizer] Annie Pearly Avery. [That] was the first time I met her, coming through that police barricade and no one daring to stop her.
Bruce: Tell us about that.
Ruby: Well, I mean we had been in the church, I can't tell you how many days and how many nights, and we were exhausted and trying to be brave, but really scared. Wanting to stay, but almost at the point of getting ready to leave, and they were not letting anyone come into the church and give us any sustenance. And so Annie Pearl must have heard about the situation, I guess SNCC was talking about it, because she showed up and was getting ready to come through the [police] line, the guy raised his billy club, she looked at him and he dropped it and she came on through the line. And that was my first engagement with Annie Pearl.
Bruce: There are a lot of stories like that about her (laughter).
Ruby: So we eventually came out, of course, and went back to school. And to me, it felt like, I don't know what it felt like to everybody else, but to me it felt like things were in disarray. I couldn't' concentrate on my classes. It just didn't seem relevant anymore to be in a classroom when there was so much going on out in the world. I think some students made a choice that they would put their educations on hold, or that they would try to do both and hope like hell they could carry it off. And then I went into Lowndes County, Alabama, [to work with the SNCC project there].
Jean: What do you recall about the march itself? Did you take part in the march that actually happened?
Ruby: Which march are you talking about, because [three] marches happened? The march that actually came from Selma to Montgomery, that's the third march, I was not on that march. That's when Stokely began to organize, began to reach out to people in Lowndes County. And in his words, "collect names." Because SNCC was looking for, some SNCC people were moving on from Mississippi. And Stokely had decided that he would be in Lowndes County. So it was after he had done that work that he came to Tuskegee and invited people to go to Lowndes County.
Bruce: Was that after school ended, or during the school...
Ruby: No, that was during the school year. I started shooting hooky, not going to school. In the south we call it "shooting hooky." I started cutting classes and not going to school, and being down in Lowndes County, Alabama. School ended in the summer, but I never really went back to school in any significant way.
Ruby: Not at Tuskegee. I did go back to school, but not at Tuskegee.
Ruby: My girlfriend and I, Mary Nell Mosely, we were the two people who decided we would go. I knew nothing about Lowndes County when I went in. And we didn't know what we were signing up for, we didn't know what all of it meant.
Stokely always had a sense of drama, so he made us understand very clearly that we were in "Bloody Lowndes." According to him, there was this gully that contained the bones of Black men who had been killed in Lowndes County. Stokely always got pleasure out of driving you around and showing you stuff and talking... So, he was giving us the history of Lowndes. And later on we realized that W.E.B. Dubois had written about Lowndes in the 1930's, it had been a part of the study that he had done.
Bruce: At the same time you were there, I was in the next county over, Crenshaw County.
Ruby: Oh, Crenshaw.
Bruce: When we had district meetings they would be in Selma so we had to drive through Lowndes County to go from Crenshaw to Selma. Crenshaw was bad, but Lowndes County terrified us. We drove as fast as we could to get through Lowndes County as fast as possible.
Ruby: Yeah, it was not a good place to be.
Jean: And the research that mostly Jack Minnis had done on Lowndes County showed that it was one hell of a place, probably the toughest in the state.
Bruce: Yeah, no question about that.
Ruby: And several times in the process of being out and about, we would get chased. Truck chases. Men in pickup trucks with gun racks. And I remember that it was like you would just be driving down maybe highway 80, and suddenly through your rearview mirror someone would recognize that you were being followed, and prior to that you were just gay and being young, and talking crap, and it suddenly became very quiet. And you always wanted Stokely to be driving when that happened because he was a very good driver.
Bruce: You had those Plymouths, right?
Ruby: Yea those white Plymouth Furies.
Bruce: Our project had a little VW bug. (laughter)
Ruby: That you had to shift. (laughter)
Bruce: Yeah, with four of us we had to get out and peddle. How we envied those Plymouth Furies you were using.
Ruby: We stayed in a variety of different places. We stayed at the Freedom House, the Jackson's Freedom House. I stayed with a woman who lived in the county, Clara Mall, I stayed with Mrs. Smith in Fort Deposit.
By the time we got there, and you probably know the chronology more than I do, but Martha Prescott who had been there in the early [days], she had gone. And the only women left now, Janet Jemmott somehow came through and was there [for a time], but the only women at that point were Mary Nell Mosely and myself.
It was at that time in Lowndes that we began to meet people like Mrs. McGill, John Hewlett. Clara Mall played an incredible role in the Movement because her grandmother was involved with this white man that she had been involved with for years, and there was this kind of "hands off" policy to a degree for Clara. And so Clara was able to get away with things that most people in Lowndes County couldn't get away with. And the other thing is that she had lots of money compared to other people in Lowndes County, so she could give money to the Movement and buy gas and do all of that, and she was very committed to doing that.
Nobody coddled you. Once we had that grand tour we were on our own. I mean nobody, Stokely didn't stay with you every day. Bob Mants didn't stay with you every day. They sent you out there to talk with people about registering to vote and you were just kind of out there. There was no on the job training.
Bruce: Well, that was on the job training! (laughter)
Ruby: What I meant is that you didn't have someone giving you an orientation period, and saying "This is what you do here, and this is what you do there." You just had to learn. And Tuskegee students, we were real sheltered. Although we lived in the South there was a real difference between rural south and city south. And in those Black belt counties the violence was particularly virulent, and people were poor in a way that they were not poor in Columbus GA in large numbers. So I, as an African-American woman, was confronting another reality for the first time in a different kind of way.
I realized that Black people, I was beginning to really look at classism, and beginning to understand some of the economic differences between Black people. I began to identify much more in a way with that community than I did with the community I had left behind in Columbus that was filled with social pretensions and people wanting to be a part of social clubs. I had never been someone so interested in that; although I was thrown into it, I was always in rebellion against it. So, it wasn't any loss that I felt. I actually felt liberated that I wouldn't have to figure out a way to try to get out of it. I really felt liberated from that.
Bruce: What did you do day to day?
Ruby: Day to day we would go around and knock on doors and talk with people and talk about... Well, you have to understand that you were fully engaged because the community was engaged and you could be walking down the street and someone would say, "Here comes a freedom fighter." And that would lead into a whole kind of conversation. It was not this very self-conscious kind of thing where you are the leader, and you are there, it wasn't that kind of missionary style of leadership. What was more significant was engagement with people, and through the engagement conversations would happen. But you were not there in the Saul Alinsky kind of model of community organizing. So that often times what was more important than what you said to people was just to be present. To be there.
Bruce: And not having been run out
Jean: And sometimes you felt you needed to be quiet. That it was not the time to talk.
Ruby: Absolutely. And sometimes you just picked cucumbers with Mr. Jackson. (laughter) And sometimes you just went to somebody's house and had a chicken dinner.
Men like Mr. John Hewlett, in a way they were more visible. Because the whole idea was not to develop SNCC leadership, the whole idea was to really support the development of local leadership because as the conversations went there was a real recognition that SNCC wouldn't be there always, and that people had to, you know, that it was really important that the leadership came directly out of the body of the community.
And we were also taking people to the courthouse to try to register, and that was never a pleasant experience because the Sheriff would pick that moment as a showdown moment. And of course he would choose the wrong person, because Stokely never backed down from a showdown. And so instead of frightening and intimidating the community as he thought he was doing, Stokely neutralized that by standing up, and it made the community braver.
Bruce: And you were also encouraging the people in Lowndes to begin to form political organizations?
Ruby: Well that was a little bit further down. The first thing that I was aware of was getting people to confront the fear. Just getting people to make the major step of going to the mass meeting. Because you have to understand that there was no such thing as going to a mass meeting incognito because somebody was going to tell somebody that you had been there. So the minute you made that commitment to go to a mass meeting, you were making a commitment about coming out of the closet and standing up. So I think it was more on that level when I came, more than a conscious attempt to move people towards a political party. That might have been on the agenda but they were not at that item yet.
Bruce: And people who did go to the mass meetings were thrown off their land?
Ruby: Yes, but when Tent City, SNCC had been there for a while when Tent City happened. What was happening were repercussions, but not the massive throwing people off their land at that point.
Bruce: When did that happen?
Ruby: That happened after, really after Jonathan Daniels was killed. Tent City was definitely in the Fall.
Bruce: Yes, Jonathan was killed in the summer...
Ruby: In August...
Bruce: Yes, August. He and I lived together at the West's during the Selma [campaign]. We both stayed with the West Family. I don't know if you ever met them in Selma...
Ruby: Oh, yes. The thing about Lowndes County and Selma, because [SNCC organizer] Silas Norman was the project director at that time in Selma, there was all this back and forth, so the projects just sort of blurred into each other. And so Silas was a lot of time in Lowndes County, and we were a lot of time up in Selma.
Ruby: I got assigned to Calhoun down with the Smiths. I don't remember if you remember Mr. Smith down in Calhoun, but he was a very brave person and was a stabilizing force of the Movement in Calhoun. I was assigned to live with his 87 year old mother. I was there by myself, and I became very close to Clara Mall. We then began to work together.
Bruce; And this was the summer of '65?
Ruby: This was in the summer, yes. And there is a lot of conversation going on now throughout the county. It's spreading from Hayneville and Whitehall to Calhoun. It's going into Calhoun, Letohatchie, Fort Deposit when Jimmy Rogers begins to work [there].
Bruce: So, you are working in Calhoun, and sometime early in August they finally pass the Voting Rights Act. Did you guys get [federal] registrars right away, or no? Lowndes County was one of the ones that filed the suit to get the registrars, right?
Ruby: Yes, right. In a real way nothing really changed significantly in Lowndes County immediately. Except white people got meaner.
Bruce: So they would still only have registration two days a month and the sheriff would be there to intimidate people?
Jean: It's the same sheriff, it's the same county clerk, its' the same...
Ruby: Right, nothing changes. Except Black people change. Because they become more persistent. We become more persistent.
Bruce: In Crenshaw there was a little change in that people on the two registration days were able to get registered after [the Act passed]. In other words, they weren't denied. If they had the courage to show up and pass through the intimidation they actually were registered. And that was a change from before the bill. I think [the county] was trying to avoid getting sued or something.
Ruby: But it still was a process that they controlled and they decided who could and could not enter. It was not a process that was democracy-driven, that everyone should have access to. It was still in the hands of the same people deciding on this day we'll probably let four people register. So, that's what I mean when I say there had not been a shift in the power.
Bruce: Did they still enforce that voucher rule, you know, that you had to have someone to vouch for you that was already registered? Lowndes was famous for that. In Lowndes and some of the other Black belt counties the rule was that no one could be registered unless an already registered person vouched that they were of good character and telling the truth. And since no Blacks were registered they didn't have anyone to vouch for them. Lowndes and a couple of other counties pioneered that system. Then when some people did get registered, they passed a rule that you could only vouch for one new voter per year to keep it from spreading.
Ruby: And that's another way of white control because then you vouch for the Black person that you think you can control and tell what to do. You certainly are not going to vouch for people who you think are making trouble in the community.
Bruce: I don't recall ever having heard of any white person vouching for any Black person. At least where I was working, the only people who would vouch [for a Black registrant] was another Black voter. We wouldn't even ask [whites] because if you vouched you had to give your name and address and employer.
Jean: And you are part of the record.
Bruce: Whoever vouched was then hit with the same amount of retaliation as the person who tried to register.
Ruby: I think when we first came in to Lowndes county there were three Black voters. There were a couple Black voters.
Bruce: In Hale County where I also worked, there were two or three but they had already vouched their limit, you know, so they couldn't vouch for anymore that year.
The Picket Line
Bruce: Do you want to talk about the demonstration and the arrest and Jonathan?
Ruby: Well, that demonstration happened on a Saturday because the young people in Fort Deposit working with Jimmy Rogers were very, very upset about the exploitation of their parents at the local store. Many of their parents were sharecroppers, and most of their profits were turned over to that store. And in addition, the owners of that store were very disrespectful to their parents, and so young Black kids in Fort Deposit really were upset about, had a righteous indignation about that kind of injustice and dehumanization.
And so they wanted to have a demonstration. Now you have to understand that prior to that, as far as I know, there had never been under this movement in Lowndes County, a public demonstration. Because that was one of the things that you just knew. So, that became a big debate among SNCC people in Lowndes County. But, you know, people thought that if young people are developing leadership you are obligated to support them. And people were very candid in admitting that they were afraid. And that this could be very, very dangerous.
Bruce: And when you say "young people" you are talking ...?
Ruby: The local young people, right, yes.
Bruce: Maybe two or three years younger than you.
Jean: I remember sitting on a, it was a park-like atmosphere, somebody's land probably. When the kids, today I call them kids, were making their case. And it was a really wrenching moment for everybody who was affiliated with SNCC. It was a wrenching moment. It hit, because I was looking directly across the group at Carmichael, he was directly across from me, and I realized I had no idea how this was gonna come out. Because nobody wants this to happen.
Ruby: (laughter) Right, nobody.
Jean: But on the other hand you couldn't, these were young people who had watched the direct action movements take place all over the south. They wanted their turn. I didn't even realize the store had something to do with the treatment of their parents. I didn't even remember that. I was down from Atlanta to cover what was going on in Lowndes County. So it was a pure accident that I was there. But I remember this awful time when you were really torn, and really didn't know which way to go. And I think the fashion that was always SNCC was to, "Okay, they want this, and they need this, so let's help them out."
Bruce: Exactly the same thing happened in Crenshaw. The young, the kids, some of them were home from college but mostly were high school. They basically told us they were going to do a sit-in, you can come and help or not. They were just adamant.
Ruby: That's sort of the spirit. That's what happened. I don't remember them saying "We're gonna do it whether you help us or not," but I remember them being very persistent that they want to do it and they feel like we should help.
Bruce: Well, Crenshaw was nowhere near as dangerous as Lowndes, so it was not quite as bad as a situation. Although a mob did form and attack, and beat the shit out of us.
Ruby: So I don't think SNCC people slept very well that night, and were not anticipating that Saturday morning. Just was hoping that it would go away. I don't know how I got down to Fort Deposit, but we all ended up at Fort Deposit. And even at that moment, Stokely was deeply hesitant. And by that time I was deeply conscious of the fact that Jean Wiley was there trying to be a reporter (laughter).
Bruce: What was she being a reporter for?
Ruby: SNCC Communications.
Jean: I had taken Julian [Bond's] desk [as SNCC's communications director], while he campaigned for a seat in the Georgia legislature. I was there for the Student Voice [the SNCC newsletter] and whatever else we put out, radio, news from the field, press releases...
Ruby: So, [at the demonstration] white men came prepared with many weapons to do their job. Whether you are talking about garbage pan lids, whatever they were. I mean basically it was a mob, designed to terrorize people. The local white men. I don't even know if they were local, I don't know where they came from, but clearly terrorism was the rule of the day. And I remember specifically, Jean do you remember when you were asked to leave?
Ruby: That they demanded that you leave.
Jean: That he pointed his rifle at ...
Ruby: And you backed [away] rather than turn your back [on him], do you remember that?
Jean: And all I could think of was, "He will not shoot me in the back. He will never say I ran." I didn't realize you remembered that.
Ruby: Oh yes. Because we were all standing there watching you.
Jean: From within the truck.
Ruby: Helpless, because we just didn't know what they were going to do to you. We couldn't help ourselves, and we couldn't help Jean.
Bruce: You had already been arrested, and she was trying to ...
Ruby: Yes, taking notes and doing ...
Jean: No, I was just asking "Where are you taking them?" I'm thinking, "Now I'm a reporter, I have a press pass ..."
Ruby: She was naive too, she thought she could ask and they would answer.
Jean: Well, right, I could at least ask, you know. [Let them know that] another eye is on this. And he tells, whatever the hell he tells me it's not very pretty. But he points, he cocks the gun.
Ruby: Good God!
Jean: I saw Carmichael's hand motion me to go, and go quietly. And all I could think of was, "He's not going to shoot me in the back."
Ruby: But actually, she went, but she still was resisting. She didn't exactly go the first time he said go.
Bruce: Doesn't surprise me a bit.
Jean: It surprised me! (laughter)
Ruby:I thought oh my God, she's losing her mind!
Bruce: But that's the way it was. People did things that looking back we said, "Oh my God, what did I do?!" But that was the spirit of the Movement.
Ruby: And so as Jean indicated, we had been arrested and put on that garbage truck.
Bruce: That was an open-top garbage truck?
Ruby: Yes. And of course nobody told us where we were going.
Jean: And that's very scary.
Jean: That's a horrifying thing to have to ...
Ruby: You don't know where you are going.
Jean: They are just driving people off and they are not telling anybody where they are going.
Bruce: What vile crimes had you done to deserve being arrested?
Ruby: Disturbing the peace and demonstrating without a permit.
Jean: And just being colored.
Ruby: And just being colored, right.
Bruce: But what actually did you do, was it a march or a sit-in?
Ruby: We were at a [picket line], the kids were [picketing] around the store.
Bruce: How many?
Ruby: I can't remember now, but it was enough to be impressive looking. I mean it wasn't hundreds, it wasn't even 25, but for Fort Deposit it was a major moment.
Jean: And it was one that they hadn't seen before.
Ruby: Right. In Lowndes County, in Hayneville, anywhere.
Bruce: Did they arrest everyone who was participating, or just arrest some of you?
Ruby: I don't remember. Jean, was there anyone left standing? I just don't remember anybody left standing.
Jean: It seems to me that it wasn't the whole group.
Ruby: How would they make the decision to arrest people?
Jean: I don't recall, I mean probably by who was more active than who. But the group doing the picketing was larger than the group that got arrested. It was only one truck.
Ruby: One truck, yes.
Jean: And that truck left with them all standing, there was no room for sitting.
Ruby: Oh you remember that?
Jean: You were all piled in standing together, pulling off. And then I took off.
Ruby: Where did you go?
Jean: I went to the fastest phones to call the Atlanta SNCC office and the who else? the FBI.
Ruby: (laughter) Who probably knew already.
Jean: I first tried to call from Lowndes County and I couldn't do it. I remember being at the Selma office. I remember being on the phone and having the exact, I couldn't believe it because it was like out of a cartoon, it's [been] all this time [since the Movement started in 1960] and he tells me the same thing the FBI has been saying for years. "Well, unless something happens there is nothing we can do about it." But there was a pause when I said, "You know what? One of these people is Stokely Carmichael. You remember the name?" And he paused, and he said "Who else?" And I said "All of them." And then he said "That's bad. He could get really hurt."
Bruce: The keen analysis of an FBI agent.
Jean: "Oh that's bad, he could get really hurt."
Ruby: So the thing about that day at Fort Deposit just underscored the correctness of Lowndes County as "Bloody Lowndes" and the tyranny and violence that had been a part of that community all the way back to enslavement.
Ruby: They took us to Hayneville, to the county seat, to the jail.
Bruce: To the jail. That's right near the square.
Ruby: Right, and we are separated, men on one floor and women on the other. The Logan girl, she was a young woman from the Logan family, a very prominent family, was also arrested. And Joyce Bailey was also arrested from Fort Deposit, her brother was also arrested, her teenage brother.
You know, growing up in the South, or growing up in America, only "bad" women went to jail. That was the last thing your mama raised you to do was to find your butt in jail. There I was in this place that my mother had told me only bad women went to. So that was a really important moment, the transformation of that space. It moved from being a space of disgrace to being a space of honor to be there.
And the community responded that way. I mean, there were some members of the community who were never going to respond. But for the most part members of the community came, when they were allowed, to the jail to see us. Mr. Hewlett was a constant presence. And when they couldn't get in they would stand at the window and we would talk to people through the window.
Now you have to understand what it means for four Black women, and I was terrified because I was under age and I could have been put in the reformatory for being there because they had already done that to some woman in Mississippi for having been a part [of a demonstration], because she was considered delinquent.
Bruce: You were under 18?
Ruby: Yes. I don't know where I got the common sense, because nobody told me that I better lie, but I sure did.
But it was terrifying, psychologically terrifying because they engaged in psychological warfare. By telling the women that if we didn't stop singing that they were going to make the Black trustees, the Black prisoners, come into the cell with us and rape us. And they threatened that they would have the Black prisoners beat the men. So [they used] this whole notion of psychological warfare, turning one Black person against another. That put the men in strange positions too, because they knew that if they [the Black prisoners] didn't do [what they were ordered] their lives were going to be hell. So we were all trapped in this very vicious [system]. Thank God it never happened. But they certainly threatened to have them rape us in our cells.
And you know there was a lot of singing going on. People were afraid, and the singing had a lot to do with just maintaining our courage, giving us something to hold on to, and stand in. And there was a lot of note passing between the men and the women. Jonathan and I passed notes and later on those notes became significant because they tried to say they we were, they tried to make something ugly out of those notes.
I got very sick in there with an intestinal bug or the beginning of some kind of ulcer. But I got very sick, and people were trying to tell the guard that I was sick, and he wasn't paying attention. But we all decided that we were going to stay the course, that we would not leave each other. That we would not trickle out on bail, that unless everybody got out, no one is going to get out. Because we knew that if you left someone in that jail unprotected they could be killed, but it was not likely that they would kill all of us together. The one person who did get out of jail was Stokely, but Jonathan, Father Morrisroe who had just come down the week before, Joyce Bailey, her brother, and the kids from Fort Deposit, Logan, myself, we stayed in jail.
Jean: Anyway, you were in there for a week right?
Ruby: Yes, a week without...
Jean: From Saturday to Saturday.
Ruby: ... without any decent food and stenching toilets. But, you know, I have to say despite those tortuous conditions, it didn't feel like we were being tortured. I mean, it was because of the spirit of just being there and standing up for something you believed in. And for those young people, and even for myself, I had never been arrested, so that was a powerful moment that even their threats couldn't defeat.
Jean: And of course, you'd been arrested for something that's lawful. You're changed. You really do not come out of that kind of institution the same person. It's not possible.
Ruby: And the same with fear. And that institution loses its power.
Jean: And so does everything else.
Bruce: I think everybody felt that. The first time, the tenth time, whatever. Everybody I've interviewed has said the same thing. It's a transforming experience.
Ruby: And that was really based on the power of the people to really take one space that had been something else and to turn it into something positive and transformative. And that therefore it no longer belonged, even though the white Sheriff and other people thought it still belonged to them, in a way it didn't anymore.
Bruce: Largely because that's the way the community reacted to it. It became a badge of honor to have been arrested.
Ruby: So you couldn't terrorize anybody anymore about being put in jail. And people wanted to be put in jail.
Jean: You know, "When's my turn?"
Ruby: (laughter) Right, so people were begging to go to jail.
Bruce: It was like that in Selma, after awhile you had little kids say, "I want to go to jail, I want to go to jail." And we said "You're too young." But they'd sneak into the march, and the police would shoo them out, but wouldn't arrest them. Of course it wasn't like that during the first times, but it became like that.
Assassination of Jonathan Daniels
Ruby: When we got out of jail, first of all, you have to understand that we were made to leave on our own word. We didn't even have bail, we didn't have anything. You know, that's a little weird that suddenly these people are gonna be gracious and say, "I trust you and you can go home."
Jean: And nobody was alerted...
Ruby: And nobody was alerted that we were gonna be leaving, and they wouldn't let us call anybody, and so we were turned out.
Bruce: What time of day was this?
Ruby: It was afternoon. And the street was very eerie. There was a quietness over that downtown area that made us feel really, really eerie. You know, sometimes you get these little instincts and you push them aside.
What really prevailed that day was that we were thirsty and needed, wanted something to drink. And so we decided that everybody shouldn't go to the store just Morrisroe, Daniels, me, and Joyce Bailey. Now I understand in reading some history that Willy Vaughn had already been to the store. And he's said that he tried to [tell us] that the man down there had a gun. But I don't remember any of that. I don't remember him saying that. I don't remember any of that. I just remember the first time we get there he is standing in doorway.
Bruce: Tom Coleman?
Ruby: Coleman definitely. And it is a face that we have never seen before. And we have gone to that little store over and over. And of course, we've just gotten out of jail, and even if we hadn't been in jail we had no weapons. And he said something like, "Bitch, I'll blow your brains out," and this man moved with rapid fire.
Next thing I knew I was being pulled back and tripped and fell. I didn't know that Jonathan was shot. I just knew the shotgun blast had happened. It happened so fast I can't describe to you, I didn't associate the body flying up in the air to Jonathan. I mean, my mind, it was happening so fast that I couldn't even process it.
When I began to process it and come back to some consciousness, I'm on the ground and I'm saying "This is dead. This is what it feels like to be dead." I think in my head that I'm dead. But I realize that I'm not dead because the other shotgun blast happens. I hear Father Morrisroe moaning for water, "Water, water, water."
Morrisroe was running with Joyce Bailey in his hands, he's holding her hand and he's not letting it go for nothing. And he's running with her, and he did not let go of her hands until he was shot in the back, and she kept running and he fell.
She runs around, you know how in the south, always there were these cars and so she ran behind one of these cars. This is the jail, she runs over, she runs out and then she circles around and goes around on the side of the jail very close to where I had fallen. And to her credit she did not leave until she could determine who was alive and who was dead. So she started calling my name, "Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby."
And I don't know how, but I managed to crawl on my knees. Because you have to understand that this man's rage was not depleted. Tom Coleman literally walks over to [Morrisroe], he is over Morrisroe's body, standing guard over this body, because [Morrisroe] is calling for water and he'll be damned if he's gonna let anybody give him water. Jimmy Rogers comes over and tries to give Father Morrisroe water, and the man threatens to blow his brains out. So he is not finished. He is on a rampage.
Joyce and I get up, I crawl over to her and we run across the street to the other group. And by now you can imagine there is bedlam. I mean people are frightened, because we don't know if this is a klan conspiracy and people are all in the bushes. We just don't know what is going to happen.
But what we do know is that Father Morrisroe is still calling for water. So, I go back over, and the crazy thing about it is that this man didn't even realize that I was a person that he tried to kill. I sometimes wonder, [I was] really crazy to go back over there, but I did that.
[Coleman] was threatening to kill everybody. We tried to get into a few houses downtown to call somebody and they wouldn't let us in. My memory is very vague because I just left Lowndes county last week and I said there's no way we could have walked to the Freedom House. And all these years I thought we had walked. But there is such a distance between Hayneville, how did we get back home?
Jean: I don't remember. Somebody called the Atlanta office to say what had happened. So somebody picked you up when they realized there was a problem, but at that time nobody knew you were even going to be released. None of the lawyers knew. The lawyers were lined up like they always are. You always knew to get lined up to get people out, but nobody was alerted.
Ruby: The only face I am conscious of seeing is [SNCC organizer] Silas Norman. Now where we hook up with him, I'm not sure. But I'm not conscious, I'm not remembering, have never had a memory, that's how out of it I was, of how we got away from that cash store. Did we go to Selma, did we go to the Freedom house? I have no idea. And the next person I remember is Stokely. That's my first real memory after that event. So who was downtown to take us, I don't know. How did all of us get in one car, I don't know. But I know one thing, nobody was opening their doors [for us].
Bruce: Because they were too terrified.
Ruby: Too terrified, right. So it was a setup. They turned us out of jail knowing that somebody was going to go to that store, and it was a setup.
Bruce: And even if no one had gone to the store he probably would have come out, he was ready.
Ruby: Oh yes, and he was not a deputy. He had murdered Black men before. And there was a Black woman in the store who was terrified. She worked in that store.
Bruce: Right, so they were going to take retribution and retaliation. Going to the store, not going to the store, it didn't matter. It was a setup. That's what everybody I talked to said.
Ruby: Yeah, he was ready. He had his shotgun. He was ready. And later on as the story unfolds, Father Morrisroe says that he was taken to the hospital on top of Jonathan's body in a hearse. And that he got to the hospital, and no one would operate on him. He laid in the hallway for hours because no one would do surgery on him. Until this old army colonel said, "I'll do it".
Bruce: Which hospital was it?
Ruby: I think it was the military hospital.
Bruce: At Craig [Air Force base].
Ruby: Yes, I almost think that's where it was.
Bruce: Because it obviously wasn't St. Judes because they would have operated. When [the local hospital in Selma] wouldn't operate on Jimmy Lee Jackson, they had to take him all the way to Montgomery [to St. Judes].
Ruby: I know that Stokely and Silas and other people went down to investigate what had happened. By then, there was no evidence that this had happened. The street, there was no blood. It was clean. I think all of us who had been there whether we directly confronted the bullets or not, spent some days just trying to figure out what had happened, and just kind of grounding ourselves. And sort of going through, over and over again, what had happened and trying to find Jonathan and Father Morrisroe. It's not like they said that we took them to this particular place, nobody had say where they had gone. And I think SNCC, it took SNCC three days to find them.
Jean: Yeah. You know I had forgotten that. We couldn't find them.
Ruby: They couldn't find them. It was like they had disappeared.
Bruce: So you didn't even know that Morrisroe was still alive.
Ruby: We thought he was dead. We couldn't imagine that he was still alive.
Bruce: How did the community in Lowndes county react to this?
Ruby: Well, the community, let's not speak in global terms, but many members of the community were outraged. And I felt that there was a protective instinct. That people knew it had been a hard time, and they were really reaching out to sort of try to lift some of that burden.
Bruce: But just as [the white power structure] thought that the arrest would intimidate, and failed, I assume that this murder was planned to intimidate...
Ruby: It didn't stop the Movement. It didn't stop people who were inclined to do it. Most people continued to participate in the Movement group. You know it didn't get smaller it really grew.
Jean: I never interpreted it that way anymore than I interpreted Sammy's killing that way. I think it was cold blooded revenge, not an act of intimidation. The guy who killed Sammy did not think he was going to be intimidating nobody. He wanted revenge for the control that he thought he was losing when Black people rose up to demand rights. The Movement had gone much too far for Coleman to think his shotgun blasts were likely to stop it.
Bruce: But there was this premeditation aspect of what happened in Lowndes in that the people were turned out of jail in a very strange way as a setup. So there had to be more than Coleman involved in this. This had to be a whole plan.
Jean, Right, I agree. I'm not saying who else may or may not involved. I mean the fact that it was one here and probably many there, the point I'm trying to make is that some of the killings that occurred in the Movement happened out of revenge, not out of, I think the killing of the three in Mississippi during the Mississippi summer project, at the beginning, I think that was an attempt to intimidate and stop these folks from coming into the state. But I never thought, nothing I've read, nothing I've ever learned about those two cases in Alabama, has lead me to believe that it wasn't just pure hatefulness, not an effort to intimidate.
Ruby: Also, I think we have to look at that this region and these men, basically what they did represented who they were. They were stone-cold killers, as many white men in the south were killers, and killed Black people for sport. So he was just doing in a real way what killers do. I mean, it was nothing out of the ordinary, it was more the habit, more the tradition, he was in tradition when he did that.
Just like he knew without a doubt that he could kill John and maim Morrisroe, he probably thought he had killed him, and get away with it. Because that was the tradition. You didn't pay any penalties for killing niggers and their friends. And so I think it was much more insidious, I think, and much more deeply representative of that maiming of the southern white character that people are not willing to own up to. That it had created in white men a propensity for killing and murder. That that was the, that's how you defended your territory, the violence. So, I just think it was part of the tradition.
Bruce: You could feel an aura of violence around a lot of those rural southern towns.
Ruby: Yes, you could just sense it. Absolutely. Absolutely.
You can't be the architect and the implementers of that kind of terrorism for all those years without being a terrorist and a killer. Something goes dead in your heart. You just, you know, these were not good people. It's almost like thinking about the German who would go listen to Beethoven and Bach and then go to the concentration camp and kill Jews. I mean, this is what we are dealing with here.
Ruby: Because their families would say these are "good men," but for the rest of the world we didn't know them as good men.
Ruby: We take John's body home. And I am feeling like, how am I gonna face Mrs. Daniels? Jonathan is her only son and he's dead, and somehow he is dead because he tried to save me. And I'm thinking how am I gonna [face her].
[We arrived] in Keene, New Hampshire, and the whole town turned out because Jonathan was a favorite son. His father was a local doctor and he was a favorite son. His family was very well respected, loved, and regarded, and so people turned out for his funeral at the local Episcopal Church, St. James Episcopal church.
I remember one of the most poignant moments for me was when they lowered his coffin into the ground. And trying to come to grips with that. Trying to understand the meaning of all that.
And at the same time trying to find the words to speak to his mother that would let her know that her son meant something to us. That he was not just a casualty around people who didn't value him. And I thought that was the most important message that she had to know. That he was valued and regarded and cared about. And so for me, it was finding those words at a young age and trying to speak. And so, I was awkward and sobered in a way.
And then we went down to his divinity school and had a memorial service there, and then we went on a speaking tour around the country to talk about what had happened in Lowndes County.
Bruce: When you say "we", who?
Ruby: Gloria Larry, I didn't name her but she was also a part of that. Willy Vaughn, myself, and Joyce Bailey.
Bruce: And that was a speaking tour that SNCC had organized.
Bruce: Before going on to the trial, you are a Tuskegee student. You start cutting class. School ends and instead of going home you go to Lowndes County. You're arrested, Coleman tries to kill you. How did your parents and family react to this? What was their thought?
Ruby: My parents reactions were typical of most parents. I mean, while they understood that this system had to change, they thought somebody else's child should do it, not theirs to get killed. So, I must admit that my mother was in that tradition. But later on, as my [younger] brother became involved in the Movement at the University of Georgia. Her whole attitude went through a transformation. She went from being terrified and resisting to supportive of him.
Bruce: Do you think that it's just because the progression of time and development, or because he was a brother and you were daughter? He was a son and you were a daughter?
Ruby: No, I think my mother in her evolution becomes more and more radicalized. And so, if it had been a different possibility for her, I told her the other day, she would have been a damn good political person. Some good organizer. So, I think some of that kicked in. Because we grew up with a mother that you didn't want to go downtown with. Because if someone insulted her in a store, she was somebody who would throw the money on the floor and curse people out.
Bruce: And that embarrassed you as a child. (Laughter)
Ruby: Right. So you didn't want to go to the store with her because you knew somebody was going to piss her off, and she was gonna create a public scene. So she always had that about her.
Ruby: This is a strange thing. Once I called my mother prior to [the murder of] Jonathan, and she was very tearfully begging me to come home because she had had a dream of my being in a coffin with a pink dress on. And that shook her up. And she put her foot down to beg me to come home. Of course I poo-pooed it. I mean, I just said "That's ridiculous," and I didn't go home. She just knew that I was strong willed. I knew that my mother would be angry for a couple of days and whenever I showed up at home she would be glad to see me. I mean, I didn't feel like I'd be kicked out of my family.
The Trial of Tom Coleman
Ruby: [After the murder, U.S. Dept of Justice official] John Doar comes down and he tells us that the wheel of justice grinds very slowly. And gives us a whole pep talk about unrealistic expectations. And I try to stay in the county, but it's becoming more and more impossible and dangerous to do that because I'm getting these threats. And so Stokely takes me back to Columbus Georgia. They sort of sneak me out of Lowndes County to Columbus. To my parents house. And I'm gearing myself up for the trial.
Bruce: The trial of Coleman, right? Not the trial for your arrest?
Ruby: Right. Coleman. I think our arrest, I never thought we would go to trial for that because that was secondary to the main event. Never did. Never thought we would, never did.
[The trial] was in the winter. It was cold, it was raining. And usually you have an area off from the main court room where people who are going to testify can wait until they are called. But of course that was not accorded us. We had to wait out in the rain until our names were called.
And of course nobody was taking us very seriously. This was a jovial moment [for the whites]. He was a local hero who had really shown those Black folk. You know, it was some merit of honor. A badge of honor. And it was not a serious trial.
I remember this guy when I walked in, Stokely went in before I did. He had testified, and I was one of the last people to testify. And the guy told me that if I testified that he would cut my throat, and I was in there with all these hostile white people, men and women.
Bruce: Who was that guy?
Ruby: I don't know. How would I know, Just a face in the crowd.
Bruce: Just as you're going by?
Ruby: Yea, just as I'm going by, right.
Ruby: [Coleman's defense] attorney, who was described as one of the best attorneys in Alabama, he was known for his bullfrog voice. He used the full stature of his white male power to try to intimidate, and tie my testimony up in knots. And something in me was so determined. I wasn't afraid of him. And he couldn't tie me up in knots.
And the more frustrated he became, the louder he would get and he would ask questions designed, "Well how many feet did he fall, when he fell, ten feet?" How do I know? I don't know feet. I didn't measure how many feet. "Well, was [Coleman] standing in the door or...?" I said , "He had to be standing in the door to be..." He wanted to know precisely what our signs had said. Just really, tried to really make a fool, and destroy my words and my memory. He was mean.
I mean really, really sneering at my friendship with Jonathan. Sneering at my friendship with Jonathan, when I said that we were friends.
And [I insisted] that he not be allowed the privilege of calling SNCC "Snick," insisting that he call it the "Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee." When he would say "Snick," I would say "That's the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to you". I mean, that he would not have that intimacy. That he would not be permitted to do that.
Bruce: What about the prosecutor?
Ruby: His name was Flowers.
Bruce: Is he, he later became Governor or his son became Governor?
Ruby: Right, it was Flowers. He had made some major motions and some turbulence in the water to try to get a fair trial. But that didn't work out. But he was not as aggressive as I thought he should have been in pushing forward the point. I mean, basically, the trial, when you read the transcriptions, hinged on the fact that Jonathan wore colored underwear, that he had a pen knife, that he drew a knife, and that there was something going on between me and Jonathan.
Bruce: That's what the defense attorney tried to turn it into.
Ruby: That's right. A feeding into the sickness of the southern white mind as a justification for why Jonathan was murdered in cold blood.
Bruce: And of course, having just been turned out of the jail, the chances of him having a weapon, I mean he never, he was totally nonviolent, we all knew that. Jonathan was an Episcopalean priest!
Bruce: Even given that, he's just come out of jail.
Ruby: Oh yes, and they also talked about, "Didn't you and Jonathan exchange books by Camus." [The defense attorney] really tried to make the reading material, really tried to create Jonathan as a communist. Reading these, not unlawful, what am I trying to say, these degrading books, really trying to strip him of all his dignity and humanity that would make him worthy of living, and make it wrong to kill him.
Jean: Like he's the cause of his own murder.
Ruby: Like he's the cause of his own murder.
Bruce: And by implying that he had some romantic relationship with you, that was actually an attack on Jonathan's religious calling.
Ruby: As a priest. Right, right. But it was the same old thing. For me, it was the Black woman as whore. That I wouldn't have been there if I was a decent Black woman. By the very fact of being there in jail, I was a whore, making myself available to men.
Bruce: But everybody, you and everybody else in SNCC knew what the outcome of the trial was going to be though?
Ruby: Right. But it still, Even though you know that there is no justice, and even though you are aware of the outcome, that doesn't mean that you accept it without any anger, or you accept it without having any reaction. It's beyond the question of naivete. It's the question that somebody that you know and cared about has been shot down in cold blooded murder. And that could have also been you, and that could have also been Father Morrisroe. So, we had a response. I mean, we were angry.
After Lowndes County
Bruce: After the trial what did you do?
Ruby: I tried to figure out what to do with myself. Because Lowndes County is not Lowndes County for me anymore.
I left Lowndes County in any kind of significant way. After the trial my parents insisted that I go back to school. And I got this fellowship to go up to Yale. And I stayed in and out and would come back to the county on a periodic basis. But for me, I had been so traumatized by the experience that it took me years not to tremble when I would see white men with a pickup truck and guns, my whole body would react to that.
By that time also, I don't remember if Jean remembers, but she was also moving. After tent city you also left Tuskegee and you went to New York. When did you go to New York? Because I hung out with you in New York.
Jean: Fall of 1966.
Ruby: By 1969 I went back to college on a full-time basis. To Manhattanville college in Purchase, New York. And I became involved in the feminist movement and later entered ministerial school.
Reflections: Spirituality and Justice
Bruce: Looking back the Southern Freedom Movement and your participation, what are your thoughts now?
Ruby: First thing that I was thinking about is that little song that says, "I'm so glad Jesus lifted me." I would probably say despite everything, I'm so glad the Movement lifted me, singing "Glory Hallelujah, I'm so glad." I mean I really, you know, I can't think of any other place I wanted to be except for where I was.
I've had a long time to think about strategies, to think about what we might have done as we moved forward in the Movement. I thought that any movement that could survive has to have built in it reflection. And I wish we could have had some moments to reflect and to really look at where we had come from, what we had done, what were the implications, and what did we mean by "freedom?" Did it mean the integrationist model? Did it mean living in Pharaoh's house and working for Pharaoh? Or did it really mean building up a new society and creating a new age?
I don't think that those kinds of questions, there should have been, in my estimation, I would have wanted that to happen. I would say that there are some critical issues that one needs to reflect on, and that there has to be full praxis. That there has to be a connection between movement and reflection. I would also say that the reflection has to include local people. And that it would have been really good to make the connection between history and memory. And to really make sure that the history was being remembered in our own voices. And for people who had been a witness. Not just the famous quote-unquote people who were witnesses.
I would have wanted the local people to be the witnesses who went before the nation to tell the story. Because I think, in so many ways, while it's my story because I am an African American woman, and it's my story because I'm an American, there's another part of it that's more their story because they were there day-to-day with that kind of violence. And so I'm just very sad that many of the local people have passed on, and we allowed the nation to write the story the way they write white men's history, where you have certain individuals who are seen as "the Movement." I would have wanted us to understand what it is that we needed to do as guarantees to break the legacy of poverty that was part of enslavement and southern apartheid in those Black belt counties.
Bruce: Do you have any thoughts of what that could have been or what that would have been?
Ruby: A redefinition of work, the value of working for oneself and how one might use one's own resources and skills as a community to build up a community and the common good in that community. I just think that it's a conversation where the definition is open for many voices who were there, and that's why it's important to have people speaking out as witnesses. It's not questions, because my question does not have proportionality if it's not around the table with other people who were part of that movement. I guess I would echo something that Jean said, to ask the question "What is the significance of the stories? And how do those stories continue to be a process that keeps us in movement?"
Bruce: And what do you think is the answer to that question? What is the significance of the story and the process that keeps us in movement?
Ruby: Well I think one thing that we know from the story is that ordinary people when working together have the power to break the backs of important empires. And that the empire, when people are united, is never stronger than the will of the people. And that despite what we are told, that we are living in a country that has a history of violence. And how is it that we make a connection between the violence of African Americans and the genocide of Native American peoples. I just think that the questions in some real ways, are more important than the answers.
Bruce: That's such a SNCC response. (laughter) That the questions are more important, That the process of asking the question and developing the answer is what is most important.
Jean: Yeah, I guess it is.
Divinity School and Spirit House
Bruce: You are still active...
Ruby: Yes, with Spirit House. It's a national organization that, when I went to divinity school I'll tell this story. I went to divinity school because one morning my locker's daughter, who was a crack addict...
Bruce: Whose daughter?
Ruby: The woman who locks my hair, my hair dresser's daughter, who was a crack addict. She was really into deep self-destruction, and she was prostituting, and she had sores all over her. You know, no matter what you said to her she couldn't hear it. Because the need for the, whatever that spiritual need that the drug fulfilled, was greater than anything that,
And this particular morning that she came in, and I was there, it was a Sunday morning, and she was looking particularly bad. And something said to me, the question that you got to ask is "Tell me where it hurts" like when you were a little child and your mother would say, "Tell me where it hurts." So I simply said to her "tell me where it hurts."
And something broke inside of her, and she began to tell me about incest, right there in front of her mother, she began to lay on the table all of the places that hurt in her life. And I thought, you know what, economics are important, but they can't touch what is going on here. That there is another dimension of human existence that I don't have access to. And that is a spiritual, people's spirits and how do you heal a broken spirit.
So I went to divinity school to try to find, I realized that all of my language that I had used in terms of social justice...
Bruce: Was economic-oriented...
Ruby: Was really materialist, and that justice is more than materialist. It is also spiritual because it has something to do with right relations with each other and with God, and rearranging our relationships with each other, and breaking through the status quo. And I began to realize that there cannot be an authentic mature spirituality in the face of injustice. Because you are in wrong relations with each other, with God and with all aspects.
So I went to Divinity School in search of that language, not only for Shelly, who incidentally after that conversation went to the 12-step program and has been clean since that moment. And every anniversary, she invites me and she stands up and tells the story to the group. And I mean, it was a hard moment for me because I'm my mother's daughter, so that girl has sores and pus running out of her. So I was like, "Oh God, what does she have, and can I touch her, and am I gonna get something?" But my desire to be there with her was greater than my fear of getting a disease.
But to make a long story, So I went to Divinity School with that purpose in mind. And I'm sure going to EDS, Episcopal Divinity School in Massachusetts, where John had gone was also loaded with meaning...
Jean: You chose Jonathan's school.
Ruby: Part of why I had chosen it is that they had been so hospitable and beautiful when we went up for the memorial service. So I never went thinking about being ordained. I was in search of theological and spiritual language, but once you get into that process something happens that the whole focus becomes the collar. And everything people are doing in that environment is to be able to move to be a postulant, to be able to get the collar, and so suddenly I found myself caught up in this.
I had always thought that there was nothing that would ever get you to sell your soul. Money can't do it, titles can't do it, because, if you've got any integrity, you can't see someone's brains get blown out in front of you and not have some reasonable understanding about the value of your life and the value of their lives. But I got caught up in the collar. And I became, and then what you learned how to do is to be disingenuous. You begin to lie to people to tell them what they want to hear because if you tell them what you really think, you are not going to get the collar.
And so one day I realized, it was an important moment for me, it gave me some proportionality about my own arrogance, I realized that I was just like everybody else. That there was something that I was willing to sell myself for. And it was at that moment, I remember so clearly literally breaking into tears and deciding at that moment that I would not go for the collar. That the collar was the power that people were after. It was what they were willing to lie to get it. But it said more about me and my own arrogance and my own similarity to other people. That I was not different, that the right thing just hadn't come my way. (laughter).
And that was a humbling experience, and so having made that decision I was really struck with the issue of what to do now? What do I do after four and a half years in Divinity School with all these new tools I've learned? And, you know, I'm not seeing Christianity the way other people are seeing it, I'm seeing it really as a redaction of Judaism. So I'm seeing it all very differently, and what am I gonna do with my life? So I decided after a year of discernment and talking with other people that I would create Spirit House.
And the reason why I called it Spirit House is from the Greek word spirit that means breath. And that what we breathe in and what we take out should be for justice. And so the consciousness, the breath. And so Spirit House is really an organization that asks people in very fundamental ways to participate in building up a new world. But also by making the connection between spirituality and justice.
That to understand that the work that we are called to do requires a radical transformation of our relationship with each other and our relationship with God, and with all aspects of creation. So it's really an organization that's wanting to move people towards a holistic movement. One that's not based on the dialectics of materialism, or not based purely on the belief that if people have money, or people get jobs, then we will be in a better society. It really asks people, as Isaiah does, to envision a society where people benefit from the work that they do and that they are really working to build up a new world.
And so that's kind of what Spirit House is. And we do that through education, through training young folks, the Jonathan Daniels and Samuel Younge interns, and we do that by taking on issues like the USA Patriot Act, homeland security, militarism, Iraq, what is going on in Iraq. But basically, within that context we try to cut through the fundamental Christianity, and we try to exegete the stories in the Bible in a liberating way.
So when we talk about Joshua at Spirit House we say, without a doubt, let's be very clear that he was an imperialist, colonialist who felt that people were so invisible, that he felt like he had God-given right to take their land. And that plants the seed for people who use God to justify pillage and colonialism. So we try to have people understand that when we talk about these stories that the value of these stories is not just that they tell us what we should do, but they also point out clearly what we shouldn't do. That they had just come out of a struggle for liberation, and the first thing that they do is that they become like the people that they had tried to get away from. And so that's the kind of stuff when we are working with Christian communities that we try to get people to look at and apply that to liberation.
Bruce: How long have you been doing Spirit House?
Ruby: For about three and a half years.
Bruce: How does that relate to your experiences in the Southern Freedom Movement?
Ruby: Well, it very much echoes my experiences in the Southern Freedom Movement although I didn't have the skills or the resources to understand that the Southern Freedom Movement, and this is going to sound really weird, really made the connection between spirituality and justice. It was a spiritual movement as well as a social movement. For Black people in the South, it wasn't just social or political, it was also spiritual.
And the other thing that I think is essential to me, to my understanding from a spiritual standpoint, that a radical transformation took place within the church. Because for the first time everybody, the preacher was not the expert on theology, that Fanny Lou Hamer was a theologian. And people who had not had access to the pulpit were certainly having the microphone, and one of the things that made that Movement work is that it was not an outside theology. People were not being governed by a European Anglicized theology. It was a theology that had grown up in the community. Where everybody had access to the symbols and the language of God talking.
That is why when Martin Luther King would say "God is the lily of the valley and the bright of morning star," those were witnessing words because they were really saying what God had been for a people in bondage. And so I think Spirit House does that. We try to be a resource where people, you can't give people hope, but a resource where people might find the hope, meaning and courage to continue to do the work. And so I see myself, on a very conscious level now, understanding that hope is as essential to a movement as direct action.
Bruce: A vision. A hope and a vision.
Ruby: Right. And really understanding what happened on a theological level during the Southern Freedom Movement. And the power of the common theological language. That it was Black folk theology. Not theology that had grown up in the Academy. Not above-your-head kinda theology. But theology that everybody could stand up and talk. And I think that was an important moment.
Bruce: I tell people that to me the Southern Freedom Movement was a "faith-based" movement. In the sense that today there seems to be this dichotomy, this polarization, where religious people are fundamentalists and anti-human, and the enemy, while people on the progressive side are opposed now to religion. And I make the argument that that's not always been the case. That there have been progressive positive human faith-based movements.
Ruby: Well, absolutely.
Jean: If I were you I would stop using the term "faith-based" which is a recent term. I like Ruby's terminology better. It's a foreign term, it's not only recent, it's bloodless.
Bruce: Well I'm using it though because of Bush and his usage of it.
Jean: Right, right, I understand. But it doesn't get at what it is you're trying to make a distinction towards. "Faith-based" doesn't get at the spiritual movement that she's talking about, and that we all saw. So I guess we all need to try to extricate ourselves from this prison of the language that they are using to be sure that ours is the language that what we are really talking about and not what they are talking about.
Going Back to Lowndes
Jean: I wanted to ask you, you were recently in Lowndes County. Why were you there, and what did you find, and how is that going to inform your work?
Ruby: Well, we were there to remember. The Episcopal Church thought that they were there to remember Jonathan. And we always make it very clear that Jonathan was not the lone individual. That he was within a context and within a community, and that you can't remember Jonathan and not remember the community. So we were there to remember the work that ordinary common people had done in Lowndes County, Alabama.
Bruce: When you say "we?"
Ruby: People like Vincent Harding and myself, Bob Mants, and other people who participated in that week-long ...
Jean: It's a week-long gathering of Episcopalians.
Ruby: Right, organized. And we brought over 17 young people from Palestine. So that they could hear the stories of African American struggles during the Southern Freedom Movement and make a connection between their stories and African American stories.
Additionally, there were 25-30 young people from Lowndes County who participated in the conversation, and I must say, with very little knowledge. [They] just did not understand or knew what had gone on and therefore had no real pride and value in their grandparents and the world that they had sacrificed to make. Just kinda thought that world came from something that somebody else outside their communities had given them, the government.
Bruce: It was the same in Selma when I was there this March, among the students, the high school kids.
Ruby: But, that was just the surface. And one of the geniuses of Vincent Harding is to be able to get below the surface and get to the place where people really stand. And what the real issues are. So, we were able to begin to do work with those young people. And Vincent and I want to go back to Lowndes County and continue that work we've done with the young people to ready them to go to Palestine. They've all signed up to go to Palestine in March, and we feel like there needs to be something on-going.
Bruce: Go to Palestine?
Ruby: As a trip. Like the Palestinian young people came here to participate. The Palestinians heard our stories, now we are going to hear their stories. And to participate in their struggle to try to understand what is going on. Many of these young people haven't been out of Lowndes County and so this was a major moment for them to, we didn't coerce them to on their own to go.
What I found is that [Lowndes] is very poor. I found this county in spiritual crisis because there is no memory. No active memory. Young people whose egos have been assaulted by teachers and institutions that don't love them. But even in the midst of that despair, I saw great opportunities of hope.
And you just kind of wonder, it's almost like the world stood still. And you just kind of wonder, it takes you a moment to realize that this was the seat of one of the most poignant movements in Alabama, and this is where it is today. So my commitment is to try to bring some young people up to Washington to have them be Fellows. To really work with them on issues of history, spirituality, and public policy.
Bruce: I think all of us who have gone back to wherever we were working, many of us have had the same reaction. That there is an absence of memory, just what you said. I found that. I went to St. Augustine and I interviewed people there and the Movement veterans, the people from the Movement there, they feel that the young people, that somehow it's been lost. And I think it's been lost not accidentally, it's not been carelessness that's lost it, it's been that the education and the media and so forth have presented the Movement in such a way as to deny the reality of the Movement, and to in some ways make sure that the lessons of the Movement are not learned.
Ruby: I agree with that, but on the other hand I do believe that our children belong to us and we have an obligation and there is something that we didn't do to fight those forces that were trying to revise history. And if we don't tell them, how can they remember? If we don't make them make the connection between what they enjoy today and where that came from. I just think we all got swept up into something, into careerism and thought that we had finally reached the Golden Gate. That's just my opinion. Even people who had been in the Movement.
And for those people who didn't buy into that Golden Gate theory, they were minimized, and silenced, and made to appear to be relics of the past.
And it's really important to remember now that we were in a war, and that some people were deeply wounded in that war, and you just don't, just like my father that came back from the Korean War shell-shocked, you just don't get over that in a couple years, it takes a lifetime often times to just sort of get through that and make some sense out of it. So, I think we must say that part of it is that people were, that we were in a war, and that the government used much of what was in it's arsenal to destroy people and the Movement.
Jean: There is one thing I've been meaning to ask Bruce since he just got back from Selma and now I'll ask you since you were recently in Lowndes. I guess my question is: Did any local white Lowndes people show up at any of these community events? Any at all?
Ruby: One. From a very wealthy family. He showed up for the whole thing everyday. And of course what stunned me, and I don't know why I was stunned, is that he had never heard this before even more than our young people hadn't. His parents had consistently lied to them. There is this movement of white people lying about what happened in a very big way in the churches, everywhere. They lie. They don't want to own the blood so they rewrite the story. And they don't tell their children what monsters they were, because their children couldn't live with the monstrosity told in its true stories, so they lie. That's what I saw and everybody caught up in that conspiracy to perpetuate the lie. The church, the community...
Jean: So essentially not a lot has changed. But, were there any, there were young people that were in some of those workshops. Were they local whites?
Ruby: Now there were white kids in our meetings, but they had come from Rhode Island and Birmingham. You mean people from Lowndes County? No. And there were not local people who had come out to the celebration. I mean to the event that Saturday when Vincent preached and we did the walk, No.
Bruce: In Selma, in the workshops, there was no way to tell [who was local and who was not]. My guess would be no [local whites], but there were so many people that it was not possible to tell for sure. And they had a big street fair, the weekend street fair in Selma, and my impression was that local whites really did not participate. And talking with the people in St. Augustine, that was the impression I had too, that it was just what Ruby said, that there is a whole campaign, a whole denial and rewriting [of history].
Ruby: And they don't see that as part of their history which is very tragic because I think I agree with Martin Luther King that this Movement not only removed the impediment of apartheid from African Americans, but it also gave white people the possibility of a new clearing.
Jean: Which they didn't take.
Ruby: Which they didn't take.
Bruce: Well, most of them didn't take.
Ruby: Yeah, well I'm not gonna count pennies. What I'm saying, for the most part, for the society to be as it is today it wasn't, I don't get a sense that white people in Lowndes County think this is their story because if so, they would be in the square.
Bruce: Any other thoughts? Anything you want to add?
Ruby: Just thank you and Jean very much for what you are doing in this project. It goes to the heart of what we have been talking about, memory and just... And the more ordinary voices you capture, I think the story will be more instructive and compelling.
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories contained in the interview belongs to Ruby Sales.