Ruby Sales: How Do We Maintain Our Courage To Fight For Change? At 17, Ruby Sales witnessed the shooting of one of her fellow civil rights activists. She explains how despite the trauma, she went on to devote her life to fighting for social and racial justice.

Ruby Sales: How Do We Maintain Our Courage To Fight For Change?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So back in 1963, Ruby Sales was a first-year student at Tuskegee University in Alabama.

What did you study there?

RUBY SALES: I studied American history, which has always been my passion.

RAZ: And how did you get involved in activism?

SALES: Well, this was a period where black activism was very much alive on black - historically black colleges throughout Alabama.


GEORGE WALLACE: The unwelcome, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion...

SALES: Because we had had the boycott in Montgomery, and you had the integration of the University of Alabama, and so that the - Alabama was a hotbed of activism.


NICHOLAS KATZENBACH: They have a right to be here, protected by that court order. They have a right to register here.

SALES: I was already pruned to be open to a conversation about becoming a movement activist, and I had been trying to find my voice as a rebel because I had always been a rebel. And that changed my life. And from that day forward, I was committed to social activism.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Deep down in our nonviolent creed is a conviction that there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true that they're worth dying for, and if a man happens to be...

RAZ: And was it fairly easy for you to get involved, to go to a meeting and to meet people? Was it on campus?

SALES: It was on campus. Well, the first thing that happened was that we went to Selma to march across the bridge. I was in - all the way in the back, and so by the time it got to be my turn to walk across, everybody was turning back. And I remember just chaos and havoc. And then with the beatings, the whole body of students at Tuskegee became more and more galvanized, and the dean of students arranged for us to have our first demonstration as a student body in response to the beatings on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And it was in that protest moment that I began to realize, in the face of dogs, billy clubs and charging horses, that white people hated me enough that they would kill me.

RAZ: Do you remember feeling fearful, energized?

SALES: Absolutely.

RAZ: Both?

SALES: Well, there's always a moment of fear when you face people who have weapons that can hurt you, but there's something about a movement's spirit where you transcend fear, and you become a part of something larger than fear. And so momentarily, I felt afraid, but the fear dissipated in the face of the community energy and the resolve and the bravery of ordinary people on that bridge that day.


KING JR: Know that we are here, and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, we ain't going to let nobody turn us around.


RAZ: Later that year, in 1965, Ruby had another experience with the movement that would change her life forever. Here's more from Ruby Sales on the TED stage. And just a quick warning - what you're about to hear includes some violence and graphic language.


SALES: I want to share with you a moment in my life, when the hurt and wounds of racism were both deadly and paralyzing for me. When I was 17, I was a college student at Tuskegee University, and I was a worker in the southern freedom movement, which we call the civil rights movement. During this time, I met another young 26-year-old white, seminarian college student named Jonathan Daniels from Cambridge, Mass. We had come to Lowndes County to work in the movement.

And on a hot summer day in August, Jonathan and I joined a demonstration of local young black people who were protesting the exploitation of local black sharecroppers by rich landholders who cheated them out of their money. And on the morning that we showed up for the demonstration, we were met with a mob of howling white men with baseball bats, shotguns and any weapon that you could imagine, and they were threatening to kill us.


SALES: And the sheriff, understanding that this is really very dangerous, arrested us and put us on a garbage truck and took us to the county's jail, which was in Hayneville. And there were 14 young women like myself, and the rest were young men. And Jonathan Daniels and Father Morrisroe, who had come down - he was a priest. He had come down from Illinois; he was also arrested with Jonathan and the rest of the group that day. And we stayed in jail, in the most incredibly barbaric circumstances, where the white jailers were trying to threaten us with being raped, where we were told that we had to drink water from the toilet. It was pure psychological warfare.

And out of nowhere one morning, the sheriff told us we had to get out of jail. And we said, no. No one has posted our bail. Why would you make us leave? He said, get out of my jail right now or you'll be sorry. So against our better judgment, we left the jail. And Jonathan Daniels, Father Morrisroe, Joyce Bailey and I were designated by the group to go and get sodas for everybody. And so we walked down to the store, which we had always gone to the store, so we didn't think that we were meeting any danger. And when we got to the store, Tom Coleman was standing there, waving a shotgun, and threatened to blow my brains out. And just as he uttered the words, Jonathan Daniels pulled me back. I fell down on the steps, and he took the bullet that was intended for me.

And Father Morrisroe was with Joyce Bailey. And seeing that Jonathan had been shot and I had - he thought I had been shot also. He started running with Joyce Bailey, and he held her hands. I could see him out the corner of my eyes when I realized I wasn't dead. And he only let go of her hands when Tom Coleman shot him in the back. And so he lay in that hot Alabama sun, crying for water. I can still hear his voice today crying for water. And Tom Coleman was walking over his body with the shotgun, daring any of us to give him water. And he later on told us that he was taken to the hospital in a hearse on top of Jonathan's dead body, where he lay in a hallway of a hospital for hours because white surgeons would not operate on him.

RAZ: You were a kid. I mean, you were 17 years old when that happened. And you describe how, for six months, you couldn't speak after that.

SALES: I could not speak. I was traumatized. And I was trying to make sense out of being a survivor. I was trying to make sense out of Jonathan's death. And so I just really went inside of myself and just shut down and would not talk. The only time I really talked was when I went to the trial because I was determined, despite the threats on my life - I was determined that I would show up and testify on behalf of Jonathan and Father Morrisroe.

RAZ: Was there a part of you at that time - 'cause I can imagine how much fear that - and the terror of that experience would have triggered. Were there moments where you thought that you would just, I don't know, stop fighting; that you would just sort of, I don't know, fade away?

SALES: No. Actually, that drove me to fight harder.


MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: The burning of our churches will not deter us. Bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. The beating and killing of our clergymen and young people will not divert us. Not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom. I know you're asking today, how long will it take?

RAZ: The world doesn't change on its own. It needs people who believe in an idea and are willing to fight for it, even against all the odds. So today on the show, we're going to explore ideas around activism - what motivates it, why it starts and how just one person can make all the difference. The man who killed Jonathan Daniels was acquitted by an all-white jury. Father Richard Morrisroe, who was also shot, survived. And 17-year-old Ruby Sales - she committed the rest of her life to the call of activism, while teaching the next generation to do the same.

You know, Ruby, I'm wondering when you work with younger activists today, do you feel like there's a sense of impatience? Because what you went through - the civil rights movement that - this was a decades-long struggle - still is. So do you tell younger people to be patient, or do you understand that sense of urgency?

SALES: I think young people - it is the nature of young people to be impatient. That's what gives them the edge to change things. I'm not expecting a young person at 13 years old to have the patience that I have. That then breaks their spirits. I expect them to be demanding. What I don't expect them to do is to give up when one demand isn't met, but I find it particularly refreshing that they have high expectations. If we were to tell a 13-year-old to be patient, they'd probably say what I said when people told me to be patient. Patience be damned. I want it now. And so I think we have to allow young people that edge. We have to allow them to be demanding. We have to allow them to push us. We have to allow them to say, no, not tomorrow, but right now. And then we have to let them see that it doesn't come right now.

RAZ: That's Ruby Sales. She's founder and director of the SpiritHouse Project. It's an organization dedicated to the fight for social and racial justice. You can see Ruby's full talk at On the show today, ideas about how to Change The World. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


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