Alva James-Johnson: Columbus connections bring history to life

Alva James-Johnson

Ruby Sales is a human rights activist whose life was saved by an Episcopal seminarian in 1965.
Ruby Sales is a human rights activist whose life was saved by an Episcopal seminarian in 1965. Photo provided courtesy to the Ledger-Enquirer.

Reading about history is one thing; living it is another.

Ruby Nell Sales sure knows the difference.

Sales, 67, is a human rights activist who grew up in segregated Columbus at a time when black children were taught that they had a responsibility to uplift their communities.

In the 1960s, she took that sense of purpose to Tuskegee University, where she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and began campaigning for voting rights in Selma, Ala. There she met Jonathan Daniels, a white, 26-year-old, seminarian who would die saving her life. At the time, Sales was only 17 years old.

I must humbly confess, I knew nothing about Sales until about two weeks ago. I stumbled across her name while working on a story about the 50th anniversary of Daniels’ historic deed, which hundreds of people are expected to commemorate Saturday during an annual pilgrimage in Hayneville, Ala., where he was killed.

After the story ran in the paper, I received two phone calls from readers. The first was from Geraldine Dunn, an 81-year-old Columbus resident who said she grew up in Daniels’ hometown of Keene, N.H., and knew his family.

Dunn described Keene as a small, wealthy town, where there are very few black residents, even today. She said Daniels’ involvement in the civil rights movement probably came from the example set by his father who was a well-known physician in the community.

“He delivered me as a baby 81 years ago and delivered three of my children,” said Dunn, who relocated to Columbus 10 years ago to be with her son and his family. “Dr. Daniels was the kindest, sweetest person, you’d ever meet. I think that probably rubbed off on his son.”

Dunn’s personal testimony certainly gave me more insight into Daniels’ life. Then I received another call from a reader, this time about Ruby Sales.

The caller informed me that Sales is from Columbus. He was surprised that wasn’t mentioned in my story. I apologized for missing that very important local connection, and thanked him for the information.

From there, I googled Sales’ name and got 47 million results. Through my research, I confirmed her Columbus roots. I also learned that she runs a program in Atlanta called the SpiritHouse Project. It brings diverse people together to work for racial, economic, and social justice, as well spiritual maturity, according to the website.

So, I called the organization to request an interview and was pleasantly surprised when Sales picked up the phone.

We had an intriguing conversation about her days as a civil rights worker and the day Daniels was killed.

Though from different backgrounds, Sales and Daniels had many things in common, she said. They were both raised in sheltered environments where they didn’t have much interaction with people of the opposite race. They were both academic scholars who responded to a higher calling.  And they both liked to drag race.

“He had an old Volkswagen,” she said. “And we would go to the old country road and push the pedal to the metal to see how far it could go and just burst out laughing. In many ways we were just ordinary young people.”

But their short time together would end tragically.

On Aug. 14, 1965, Sales and Daniels were arrested for demonstrating with the children of sharecroppers who believed their parents were being cheated by landowners. Along with other protesters, they spent six days at a jail in Hayneville and were released without bail on Aug. 20.

Sales said they felt suspicious being released so suddenly, but the sheriff said there would be trouble if they didn’t leave the jail. It was a steaming hot August day, and they were thirsty. So, Daniels and Sales went to a small grocery store with two other civil rights workers to buy something to drink.

That’s when a white man at the store pointed a shotgun at Sales. Daniels pulled her back and she fell to the ground as the gun blasted.

“It happened so fast, I felt I had been shot,” Sales said. “I thought, ‘This is what it feels like to be dead.’”

But it’s Daniel who died, and Sales said she will be forever grateful for the sacrifice he made on her behalf.

That day, Sales saw the best and the worst of humanity. Now she’s a living piece of history inspiring others along the way.