These past two weeks, an ancient and a modern tale of bitter, poisonous waters suddenly rang together as an alarm and an awakening. Right now: We have been learning about the horrifying and disgusting behavior of the government of Michigan, turning off the pipes bringing pure water from Lake Huron to the mostly Black citizens of the city of Flint and instead sending poisonous waters to Flint. (The Governor, Rick Snyder, is no Tea Party type, but a fairly typical “establishment” Republican businessman — anti-labor, anti-choice for women, anti-Syrian-refugees, and contemptuous of pleas from the Black folks of Flint to end the poisoning of their children.)
So the bitter waters came: Waters that stank and were colored brown and green, waters that caused rashes and boils to spring up on the skins of those who had to drink it. Waters infused with lead, which is well-known to permanently and irreversibly damage the brains of young children. Long long ago: The age-old Torah telling that we read this past Shabbat was the story of how ancient Israel crossed the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s power dissolved and his army drowned there. Just a few days later, according to the story, they protested because they had no water fit to drink. What connects these two events?
This summer I spent a week in Charleston, SC, vacationing and learning about the civil rights movement in the Low Country. While visiting the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, I picked up Katherine Mellen Charron’s biography Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima P. Clark. Charron does an exceptional job covering the Southern women’s movement of the civil rights struggle — especially as it relates to the activist educators, club leaders, and “race women” — those women who laid the groundwork for upstarts like the students in SNCC. (I keep shaking my head in admiration and amazement that Mrs. Clark joined the NAACP in 1919!)
One of those SNCC upstarts was Ruby Nell Sales, a veteran organizer/activist rooted in the Southern civil rights struggle and founder of the SpiritHouse Project. (I’ve had the honor of working with Ruby a few times and interviewed her for Sojourners magazine in 2002.)
Ruby wrote a piece this weekend honoring her teacher, Mrs. Armstrong. Ruby’s portrait highlights the strength, humanity, and deep-seated wisdom of Mrs. Armstrong and thousands of women like her who were the backbone of the most significant social change movement this country has ever seen. So while white supremacists like Glenn Beck are parading around shouting about how important they are, Ruby reminds us that “the Glenn Becks come and go.” It’s the Mrs. Clarks, Mrs. Armstrongs, and, I’ll add, the Ms. Sales who abide. Here’s Ruby’s article, which was posted today:
From the early days of my childhood, race women inhabited my life. I knew them like I knew the lifelines in my hands. Race women raised me in the church, community, school and on the playground. In many ways, they were my other mamas and I was their “omanish” child whom they loved even as they shook their heads at my fast mouth and unorthodox ways.
Everywhere I went as a young person there was a race woman beckoning me to “come here” or “speak louder. “ They sat in the deaconess corners or on front porches or presided over classrooms, honor societies, cheering squads, Majestic Ladies, Tri-Hi- Y and Sunday school classes. They taught me how to carry myself well and dignified. Even when I grew up and left them to go my way, they continued to exist in and with me. I heard their voices like a steady drumbeat that helped establish the rhythm of my life.
Mrs. Armstrong was an unapologetic race woman who loved her students across our differences. We called her “big red” behind her back. Everyone in Columbus knew that “you did not mess with Marian’s children.” At Carver High school, she was a force. She took students in her home room class whom the world dismissed as thugs and problems. They both loved and feared her. When she spoke, they listened because they knew that she would knock door doors to give them a chance in life. Many of her male students were actually too old to be in school. But, that did not stop her. She changed their ages and dared anyone to question her. They repaid her with a fierce loyalty and a high school diploma. Her determination to educate her students and advance their lives was the defining aspect of her life as a teacher and race woman. Continue reading “Ruby N. Sales: Reflections on Mrs. Armstrong–A Race Woman”