It was one of those hot and sticky August days in Lowndes County, Alabama. Ruby Sales, a 17-year-old student from the Tuskegee Institute, had just been released from six days in the county jail for joining a picket line against three businesses that would not serve African Americans. It was 1965.
"We were hot. We were thirsty. Someone decided that Jonathan Daniels, Father Richard Morrisroe, Joyce Bailey, and myself should go and get the sodas for the group," said Sales in an interview with civil rights historian Vincent Harding. As they approached the door of the little corner store, Deputy Sheriff Tom Coleman met them with a shotgun. Ruby was nearest Coleman. Jonathan Daniels, a white seminary student from New Hampshire, was behind her. Coleman threatened Sales, "I'll blow your brains out." Daniels grabbed Sales, shoving her aside. "The next thing I know there was a shotgun blast and then another shotgun blast." Twenty-six-year-old Jonathan Daniels lay in the dust, dead.
Six weeks after the shooting, an all-white jury found Coleman not guilty of murder. Daniels' death prompted Martin Luther King Jr. to comment, "One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry and career for civil rights was performed by Jonathan Daniels."
"Make no bones about it, Jonathan made a choice to push me aside," says Sales in the civil rights documentary series Veterans of Hope. "It was a hard moment in my life, but I knew that somehow I was going to speak up for Jonathan because he couldn't speak up for himself." Ruby Sales continued her work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and, in 1998, she completed her master's degree from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts—Jonathan Daniels' alma mater.
TODAY SHE IS director of a national organization that uses arts, education, research, spiritual reflection, and action as tools for supporting diverse communities in their nonviolent struggle for justice. It's called SpiritHouse, and it's operated out of a storefront near the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.
"A great part of our work at SpiritHouse is based in a progression towards justice called ‘community formation.' Principally, we work with new visions that come out of the model of leadership that grew out of SNCC and in the black community of the South," says Sales. "It says that communities form their leaders, that leaders are grown and nurtured out of the body of the community, and that there has to be a connection between the leader's individual ambition and the community's need. Community agendas are not decided at board meetings and retreats. They come directly out of a marriage between leaders and their communities, because basically their destinies are intertwined."
The official name of Ruby Sales' SpiritHouse project is the Jonathan Daniels and Samuel Younge Forum for Social Justice. "Jonathan Daniels saved my life and Samuel Younge was a classmate of mine, a Tuskegee student, and a leader in SNCC," recalls Sales. Following an argument over segregated restrooms, a white gas station owner murdered Samuel Leamon Younge Jr. on January 3, 1966. He was the fifth civil rights worker to be killed in Alabama in 12 months. "The loss of Younge was so tremendous," says Sales, "that [SNCC chairman] Jim Forman notes that something happened to the spirit of the movement when Samuel was killed."
"I have been disturbed over the years that Samuel's name is rarely called," says Sales. "It's important for young people to call his name, to remember names like Samuel's, because it gives them a particular kind of hope. And Jonathan's story, of course, gives young white people hope. On a larger level his story can give us all hope, no matter who you are."
SpiritHouse is currently engaged in a massive education campaign in churches and college campuses on the USA Patriot Act—a bill passed by Congress six weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Supporters view this bill as a way of providing the president and law enforcement the necessary tools for stopping future acts of terrorism. Critics see it as a backlash to tragedy that gravely endangers the Bill of Rights. "We are looking into issues like the effect of the Patriot Act on academic freedom, because we feel the act is being used to silence dissent in academia for those groups with a pro-peace stance," says Sales. SpiritHouse is also researching the connections between the "warehousing" of African-American and Latino men in prisons and the "detaining" of other men of color—primarily of Middle Eastern descent—in the wake of Sept. 11.
Ruby Sales carries herself like an African sunrise coming up over the land full of power and light. "I ask myself now how one does work in the world with any moral authority when you're past 50 years old," she says. "It's hard when we think of youth as having the vitality to mount the demonstrations. Well, we need to rethink that whole vision. There is something advantageous and important about people over 50, with gray hair, confronting the system. It's harder to beat people with gray hair. I mean visually it creates greater dissonance in the body of the community to see grandmothers get beat up."
She smiles and lifts an unconscious finger to the stormy gray threaded through her own cornrows. "I have this vision of a vanguard of people marching—all over 50—proving that we're not dead yet. I say we take our blood pressure pills and get out there. We still are a part of the great calling—the work isn't over until we close our eyes and die."
Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners.