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. Continue reading “Ruby N. Sales: Reflections on Mrs. Armstrong–A Race Woman”

Mario Savio Wrote the Handbook on How to Lead a Successful Student Movement

Mario Savio atop police car.
Mario Savio atop police car.

I’ve always had an interest in Mario Savio, icon of the 1960s Free Speech Movement and a Catholic. When Savio died in November 1996, I wrote a short news item about him in Sojourners.

In December 1964, after three months of student resistance to the curtailing of political activity on the Berkeley campus, Mario Savio climbed atop a police car and shouted the words that became a preamble to the 1960s’ student movement. Savio’s whole life had prepared him for that pivotal moment. He grew up in Queens, New York, in a strong Italian Catholic family; attended Catholic schools; considered becoming a priest. He trained with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi, saying, “I became involved in the Civil Rights movement because of the one moral principle foundational to my Catholic upbringing: Resist evil.”

In 1964, Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, described the university as a “factory” for filling students’ empty minds. Savio, son of a machine punch operator, responded by putting his body “upon the gears” and stopping the machine. He was arrested and served 120 days in jail, with students ranging from Democratic Socialists to Goldwater Republicans. In the end they secured their rights to free speech and political activity; they went from being children of the “factory” to citizens of the nation. Savio was a leader, a movement friend said, “not because of anger or eloquence but because he spoke with an indelible moral clarity that was rooted in his Catholic faith.”

Last year, Robert Cohen published Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s, the first comprehensive biography of Savio. Not only does Cohen lay out the groundwork for the education of this thoroughly American radical, but he also gives a generous look at Savio’s commitment in the second half of his life: against “Reaganite Imperialism” in Central America and the corporatization of higher education.

Knowing Mario Savio’s life, strategies, and motivations is necessary for activists leading the new student movements happening on campuses today. Scott Saul published good review (A Body on the Gears) of Freedom’s Orator in this month’s The Nation. Here’s an excerpt from Saul’s analysis:

By necessity [the new Savio biography by Robert Cohen] Freedom’s Orator is a dual biography of a man and his movement, and almost half the book follows less than four months of Savio’s life, the pivotal fall semester of 1964. The [Free Speech Movement] FSM ran what we might call a textbook student-activist campaign in that interval–if we overlook the fact that the textbook didn’t exist yet. President Nixon’s 1970 Commission on Campus Unrest termed militant student protest “the Berkeley invention,” and rightly so, since the FSM pioneered the use of civil rights strategies of direct action in a university setting, demonstrating how such disruptive tactics could mobilize a majority of students and even win the sympathies of a formerly passive faculty.

The FSM had the benefit of a cadre of experienced organizers, many seasoned like Savio in civil rights work, and a university administration that couldn’t shoot straight. What began as a seemingly minor dispute over civil liberties on campus–could students hand out political literature on a twenty-six-foot strip of land owned by the university?–spiraled quickly into a battle royal in which the meaning of the university and American liberalism seemed to be at stake. The central events have since passed into ’60s legend: the seizure of a police car, wherein thousands of students surrounded a police cruiser holding an arrested civil rights activist, immobilizing it for thirty-two hours while speaker after speaker used the car’s roof as their podium; the December 2 sit-in, wherein almost 800 students were arrested after occupying Sproul Hall, the central administrative building, to protest disciplinary action against four movement leaders; and the December 7 Greek Theatre incident, wherein Savio walked onstage to speak to the assembled student body and was immediately grabbed at his throat and arms by police and dragged offstage–an administration fiasco that UC president Clark Kerr called “an accident that looked like fascism.”

In all these events, Savio played no small part in the theater of protest. It was he who first mounted the roof of the police car, taking off his shoes so as not to dent it–a quite sincere act of decorum, though not one that prevented him from comparing the police to Adolph Eichmann (they all “had a job to do”). It was Savio who, before the sit-in, famously urged students to put their “bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and…make [the machine] stop”–updating Luddism for the age of the Organization Man. And it was Savio who, at the Greek Theatre, publicly offered his own body to the cause, making his “machine” speech seem much more than mere metaphor.

Read Scott Saul’s complete review here.

‘We Will Continue to Sing’: Civil Rights Leader Ruby Sales on the Life of Ted Kennedy

ruby-salesIn 2002, I interviewed civil rights leader Ruby Sales for Sojourners magazine (see Long Train Runnin’.) Ruby is one of my heroes in the faith. She’s a courageous, funny, generous, fiercely committed sister in the struggle for justice. She now directs the SpiritHouse Project in Columbus, Georgia.

I was very touched by her reflection on the life of Ted Kennedy, set in the historical context of the fight for justice. She asks: What is it about a White upper class senator’s life that touches me as a Southern Black woman who grew up during segregation and economic exploitation …? Read her answer below. Ruby Sales is My Kinda Christian.

A Generational Narrative by a Black Woman on the Life and Legacy of Senator Edward Kennedy–by Ruby Nell Sales

This morning I awakened to the sound of news reporters telling the world that Ted Kennedy died just as the night turned into morning.  As I heard Senator Edward Kennedy’s voice booming from the television the words “For those whose cares have been our concern… The Hope Still Lives, The Dream Shall Never Die…” when he lost his bid for president in 1980 – my eyes filled with tears that carried with them the hopes and dreams of a generation and community of people of all colors who imagined a new day in America and worked hard to achieve it.   As I thought about this man who lived a life committed to “making a better world,” it touched the grief and celebration that run throughout the lives of my generation who rode and still rides a long train towards justice. In many ways, his life reflects the hills and valleys of our lives… our “victories and our defeats.”


This morning in a very special way, I remembered my young brothers and sisters in the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee and local communities throughout the South who worked unrelentingly to advance democracy during the heat and violence of White supremacy without thinking of money or benefits. We lived and worked from freedom houses that lacked hot water, inside bathrooms and sturdy foundations to protect us from the violence and terror of White night riders. Most of us were young.  We were idealistic.   We were Black, White and Brown. We were determined.  Despite generations of America’s broken promises of democracy, we still passionately believed in the dreams of our mothers and fathers: that America was large enough for everyone regardless of race, sex, class, color or creed.

Believing this, we put our youth on the line to make real their dream.   We were wounded at the core of our young selves under the weight of White lies, White racism and White violence.  America’s bad faith, violence and oppression fractured us into tiny unclaimed bits which lay on the road from Mississippi to Alabama to Washington to New York to Los Angeles.  Yet, like Ted Kennedy, many of us did not die or lose our will to struggle. We kept on believing, working, and struggling despite hearts that were broken by White men who killed our relatives and murdered our friends.  I admit that sometimes we did not always carry our grief well or wisely.  However unlike the Trumpet blowers of White Supremacy and injustice, we harmed ourselves more often than we did others.  Unlike them, love rather than hate stirred our passions and ignited our imaginations.  Even as we watched right wing communities vigorously and intentionally roll back the gains of the Southern Freedom /Civil Rights Movement, like Senator Edward Kennedy, we “kept the faith” and found it over and over again despite the hopeless despair that the right wing communities spread throughout America like a dirty blanket. Because their language and ideals lacked hope, moral authority and meaning, they stole our freedom language. They called death squads in Nicaragua freedom fighters. Even in the midst of this grand theft, we knew like Senator Edward Kennedy that they might steal our language and images, but they could not kill this dream that still burns in us. Continue reading “‘We Will Continue to Sing’: Civil Rights Leader Ruby Sales on the Life of Ted Kennedy”