Ruby N. Sales: Reflections on Mrs. Armstrong–A Race Woman

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!)

Ruby N. Sales

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.

I met her in the seventh grade when she selected me to be in her homeroom where I stayed until I graduated. My classmates teased me about being her pet. I suppose in many ways they were right. We were fiercely dedicated to one another. But, this did not lessen her expectations of me or free me from her insightful tongue. There was no mountain too high that she did not encourage me to climb. It was in her class that I learned an important lesson about the abuse of power. She let me eat in class which broke the no eating in class rule. Her silence infuriated my friends, and that evening they took me under the hill and surrounded me. Afraid to hit me, they decided to shout through the streets on the way home, “Ruby Nell got beat today.” Their organized protest and public chastisement were justice lessons that began my early reflections on power and protest.

My point is that race women were not always fair or even handed, but even their unfairness generated important lessons. Despite their human weaknesses, their dedication to the race and young people was unbending. As race women, they are not to be confused with White race people who used race as an organizing tool for White supremacy. They understood that their loyalty to the Black race did not require them to be anti-white. Nor did being a race woman circumscribe their movement or vision in the world.

When I went with students from Tuskegee to march on the capitol in Montgomery, and when the police drove us into Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where the deacons turned off the water and heat to force us out, Mrs., Armstrong drove all the way to Montgomery from Columbus, Georgia to see if her students were alright. She convinced all of them to leave the church except me. When she left, she gave me a look of exasperation edged with a smile of agreement. She told my mother later that she knew that I would not leave. Despite her fear that I would be killed in the Movement, she was proud of me and defended my decision to participate and to even cut my hair into an Afro.

Mrs. Armstrong is dead, but every day I hear her voice asking annoying and insightful question. Yesterday, she asked, “Ruby Nell, when did we move from living in neighborhoods to ghettos?” Her question resonated deeply because it says so much about how we value our lives and the places that we make and call home. Neighborhood implies connections, intimacy and relationships. Ghettos conjure up disconnection, brokenness and deficits. Ultimately ghettos become” hoods.”

I thought about that generation of race women today as I listened to Glenn Beck. They would not have wasted their time dignifying him or giving him “the time of day.” Instead, they would have worked harder to good students who would grow to avenge the Glenn Becks of the world. She would look out into the world and say the Glen Becks come and go, but our task is to be here always.–Ruby N. Sales

Thank you, Ruby.

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