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Atlanta activist Sales tells St. Vincent College audience to 'charge forward with love'

Mary Pickels
| Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Ruby Nell Sales pauses a moment after concluding her speech to those that gathered to Fred M. Rogers Center on campus at St. Vincent College in Latrobe on Monday, Jan. 18, 2016.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Ruby Nell Sales pauses a moment after concluding her speech to those that gathered to Fred M. Rogers Center on campus at St. Vincent College in Latrobe on Monday, Jan. 18, 2016.

Fifty years ago, a white freedom worker and divinity student pulled Ruby Nell Sales away from a pointed shotgun, losing his life in the process.

Sales, an Atlanta human rights activist, public theologian, social critic and author, urged those attending her Martin Luther King Jr. Day address at St. Vincent College to “dare to be brave.”

“Do not go out into the world with hate. Charge forward with love ... and a real strategy for achieving a better world,” she said.

Her address capped a daylong campus observation.

Sales, 67, is the founder and director of the SpiritHouse Project. The national nonprofit works toward racial, economic and social justice through the arts, research, education, action and spirituality.

On Monday, she recalled the August 1965 incident when as a teenager, she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Tuskegee University in Alabama.

“I went from being a beatnik ... to becoming a freedom fighter, and that changed my life,” she said.

She met Jonathan Daniels when they joined a demonstration by local black students whose parents were underpaid sharecroppers.

They were arrested and taken to jail in a garbage truck, pursued, she said, by “a white mob.”

“I'm in a jail where the jailers are threatening to rape us, where people are being beaten. We think torture is something that happens in another country. But what do you think it is to put a dog at someone's throat? That's torture,” she said.

The group was released days later. As several members approached a corner store, an armed man named Thomas Coleman, Sales said, barred their way, telling them, “I'll blow your brains out.”

Before she could think, she said, Daniels pulled her back and was shot and killed.

Sales later defied threats of violence to testify at Coleman's trial. He claimed self-defense, according to published accounts, and an all-white jury acquitted him of manslaughter.

She said she struggles with the idea of some people performing volunteer work on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“Martin Luther King was about a lifelong commitment to justice, not volunteerism. That's really a distortion of the dream,” she said.

King grew up with a Southern “black folk” theology that preached, “I love everybody in my heart. You can't make me hate you in my heart.”

“Can you imagine a people enslaved in chains saying, ‘I love everybody'? ... It was the black-folk religion, not the black church ... that shaped Martin Luther King and shaped the Southern freedom movement of which he was a part,” Sales said.

The nature of his dream, she said, was “social rearrangement,” a world where “the least of them would be the best of them.”

“Martin Luther King's dream was a call to radical change. It was not a warm and fuzzy call. It was hard work,” she said.

“I grew up in the segregated South, in that region of terror. Martin Luther King grew up in that region of terror. So when he talks about love and nonviolence, it is a radical departure from business as usual,” she said.

Those of a certain age, she added, “remember the police, remember the dogs, remember the hoses, remember the billy clubs.”

Some of today's political and social climate, she said, makes it appear that “we never learn.”

Sales appealed to the young students in the audience.

“Demand the right to participate in shaping this nation. Rail against people who want you to conform without adding your voice to the public conversation. Find your voice and speak,” she said.

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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