July 8, 1948 –
Raised in Jemison, Alabama and Columbus, Georgia
Growing up, Ruby Sales often came home to conversations about racism and injustice. Her father was a Black Army veteran who had served in World War II and Korea and, like many of his generation, was angry that Black soldiers would risk their lives fighting for this country but still could not vote. “It had a very profound impact on having me understand that I could defend myself,” said Sales.
Her consciousness grew as a young student at Tuskegee. In Sales’s English 101 class with Jean Wiley, she read James Baldwin for the first time. SNCC organizers Stokely Carmichael and Willie Peacock were coming to campus talking about the importance of participating in the Movement. Gwen Patton, the first female student body president, was a fierce advocate for freedom organizing efforts. It was not long before Sales found herself signing up to go to two notoriously racist and violent Alabama counties: Dallas and Lowndes Counties.
In the summer of 1965, Ruby Sales and Mary Nell Mosely spent their days knocking on doors, canvassing in Lowndes, “We saw the community going about its normal business on the one hand, but on the other hand taking care of the immediate and new question of freedom,” recalled Sales. She was both struck by the violent history of “Bloody” Lowndes and moved by the hospitality and bravery of the local people.
In August, the young people of Ft. Deposit in Lowndes County “were on fire with Movement spirit,” Sales remembered. They presented SNCC with a proposal for a demonstration. Although hesitant to participate in direct action given the potential danger, SNCC members ultimately were swayed by the enthusiasm of the young people.
As they marched up to the central business district with their homemade signs, an armed white mob and deputies had taken the place of the usual Saturday shoppers. Before the mob could attack, however, the protestors were arrested and carted away on a garbage truck. They sat in jail for nearly a week and then were released, without warning and without anyone waiting for them.
Ruby Sales and a few others went to get some soda for the group, as the hot August sun was beating down. In the doorway of the store stood Tom Coleman, and before Sales realized what was happening, she was pushed to the ground, Jonathan Daniels and Father Morrisroe were shot, and Daniels had been killed: “I remember thinking, God, this is what it feels like to be dead. I heard another shot go off and I looked down and I was covered with blood. I didn’t realize that Jonathan had been shot at that point.”
After the trial of Tom Coleman, who was acquitted by a jury of white peers, Sales stepped away from Lowndes County. She delved back into her studies, searching for a way to bridge the connection between social justice and spirituality. “Where does it hurt?” Ruby Sales asks those she meets, “And so I see myself, on a very conscious level now, understanding that hope is as essential to a movement as direct action.”
Sales has remained committed to the Southern Freedom Movement. She continues to mentor young people and organizes with the SpiritHouse Project.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 94-98.
Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (New York: Scribner Press, 2003), 466-470.
Ruby Sales interviewed by Jean Wiley and Bruce Hartford, September 2005, Civil Rights Movement History Website.
Dr. Gwendolyn Patton, “Insurgent Memories,” Spring 1981, Southern Exposure, Civil Rights Movement History Website.
Ruby Sales interviewed by Joseph Mosnier, April 25, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, Library of Congress.
Interview with Ruby Sales, December 12, 1988, Eyes on the Prize Interviews, Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Film and Media Archive.