By Stephanie Younger •
At the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership (KGCCWL) Virtual Spring Conference, I had the unforgettable experience of interviewing Ruby Sales, a freedom fighter, theologist, and founder of the SpiritHouse Project, an inner-city mission dedicated to Jonathan Daniels, who was murdered, while shielding her from a deputy who tried to take her life. I am honored to have had this conversation Ruby Sales and to have this knowledge passed on to me because there are so many similarities between our journeys as Black liberationists. You can view the full conversation, “Loves the Struggle” Movement-Making for the Culture on demand via Expo Pass until July 10, 2021.
When Ruby Sales began college at Tuskegee University, Ruby Sales became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (S.N.C.C) when Stokely Carmichael [Kwame Ture] spoke to her English class (instructed by Jean Wiley) and recruited the students to register people to vote in Lowndes County, Alabama. “Stokely Carmichael took me to this gully where we could see the bleached bones of Black men and women who had been lynched, and their bones had been thrown in this gully. And the second thing that really struck me was when Stokely took me with a group of people to register local Black people to vote.” The moment Sales knew she truly wanted to be a freedom fighter was while she was registering voters, and saw a sheriff point a gun at Stokely Carmichael, telling him, “N*gger, tonight, you will be in hell.” Carmichael replied, “Tonight, hell will be integrated.”
Sales specified that she defines herself as a “freedom fighter,” rather than a “civil rights activist,” in the sense that there is more to the Southern Freedom Movement than civil rights, and that we are fighting for world where Black are not only surviving, but also thriving. “From the moment of captivity, white people have thought that Black freedom was a threat to white freedom, and they’ve tried to do everything in their power to make sure that we did not have freedom of mobility, freedom of social development; any kind of freedom as a threat. The first freedom struggle in this country was the runaway slave movement, when Black enslaved people organized and ran away,” Sales said. “Our struggle is a freedom struggle. Harriet Tubman did not run away for civil rights. She ran away for freedom.”
Regarding Black freedom movements, as they pertain to police and prison abolition, we discussed how they have evolved since the 1960s. “I think the movement to end police violence against Black people really began after WW2, when lynching began to decline and police stepped in to use policing as a means – as a repressive means – to maintain white power and Black powerlessness, and to contain Black freedom and Black mobility,” Sales observed.
“Even in the sixties, when we look at the Southern Freedom Movement – known as the Civil Rights Movement – we see the police putting German Shepherd dogs on Black protesters, and unleashing water hoses on Black young people who are freedom fighters…It depends on how we look at it, and I think that in some periods – I think that in this particular [present] period, it has become more intensified and more obvious because it’s directly tied into the fact that Black lives are considered disposable waste in the technocracy, where very few lives matter, and Black lives matter the least of all.”
Additionally, we spoke about policing, and its existence being rooted in the disposability of Black folks, while protecting the property, capital and the interests of the white ruling class. A notable example of the prison industrial complex’s development that Sales mentioned is the plantation system, which has evolved into the presence of jails and prisons, orchestrated by the white ruling class, to treat Black people as disposable.
“The police forces are designed to contain Black freedom, and to ensure Black compliance and to commodify Black bodies and Black lives. For example, today because Black people are no longer as relevant to the system of technocracy. In terms of labor, our suffering has become combined with these occasional Black sufferings, and our suffering has become a product that is pumped out and sold to the highest bidders.”
Further into our conversation, we measured the impact in organized communities and direct action, versus solely looking to the electoral system and politicians for freedom. “Revisionist history changed the meaning of the movement from freedom to civil rights, and that way it even created a false impression as to who were the benefactors of the rights that we had won, and received,” said Sales. “It made us believe that politicians are the ones who gave us those rights, and not ordinary people who fought and struggled and put everything on the line for it…When you miss that story, then you miss the love that propelled ordinary people to give so much more than what you could ever imagine, for many rights that they themselves would never enjoy.” A movement – organized communities and direct action – is a marathon towards radical change and liberated communities as the goal, whereas electoral politics is a sprint towards an individual person winning every year.
Sales told me that “Without intergenerational continuity, one cannot have faith,” which embodies the core of our conversation. Strengthening our love for each other as Black people by having this intergenerational conversations is imperative to movement making and to our liberation. “It also creates continuity so that each generation is not starting over again, [but] that we’re building on what’s already been created.”
“Although you might get discouraged, you don’t get into nihilism because you have the hindsight; you see how far we’ve come, and you see the major victories that we’ve achieved along the way, and the magnificent love that generations poured into, when Black people met in 1865 in Selma, Alabama, where they pledged the utmost endeavors to educate the young for the advancement of the race and for the preservation about rights.”– Ruby Sales
Stephanie Younger is an 18-year-old based in Richmond, Virginia, whose work centers the intersections Black feminism and womanism have with prison and police abolition. In 2017, she created Black Feminist Collective.