St. Alban’s Parish was blessed this morning with the presence and witness of Ruby Sales, a civil rights activist whose life was saved 50 years ago by the actions of Jonathan Daniels. Michael Ruane, writing in the Washington Post, explains:
By all rights, Ruby Sales should have been killed on Friday, Aug. 20, 1965.
She should have been hit by the shotgun blast fired by the enraged white man on the porch of the general store in rural Alabama.
Her life should have ended at 17, an African American college student and civil rights worker, gunned down under a Coca-Cola sign in the fight for freedom and justice.
But there she was Sunday morning, age 67, in St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington, given a half-century of life by a white seminarian named Jonathan Myrick Daniels who pushed her aside and died in her place.
She sat in an ornate wooden chair in the chancel of the church, the decades having taken a toll on her eyesight and her knees, and called herself “a remnant” of the great civil rights generation now passing from the stage.
Ruby Sales may see herself as a remnant, but her call for justice was strong and unequivocal. “I never imagined that there would be people working overtime to dismantle those changes,” she said. “I never imagined that . . . once again black people would be fighting for our lives.”
Speaking for thirty minutes from the chancel in St. Alban’s, Ruby Sales took the three lessons from today’s liturgy and spoke to them from her perspective as an African American woman who grew up under state sanctioned terrorism. From the lessons in Samuel, she saw King Solomon – with his riches and slaves – in a different light than the traditional perspective of wisdom in which Solomon is usually portrayed. And she contrasted the decisions Solomon made with those made by Jonathan Daniels.
“You have to understand the significance of Jonathan’s witness,” she said. “He had graduated from the Virginia Military Institute. A doctor’s son, he had studied at Harvard and at a traditionally white Episcopal divinity school. He walked away from the king’s table. He could have had any benefit he wanted, because he was young, white, brilliant and male.”
She then spoke at a later forum with the title “We’ve Been Here Before.”
In that forum, Ruby Sales spoke of the spiritual genius of her parents and grandparents, and suggested that we all become better acquainted with African American history. It was in that context that I asked her thoughts on the fact that the families of those slain at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston had been able to offer forgiveness, while families of others killed in recent mass murders seemed to have such different reactions. This is a topic that has been on my mind, and that of many others, over the past two months. (See also here, and here.)
Ms Sales responded with grace and understanding. She said, “Forgiveness is the result of a long journey. Forgiveness comes out of lamentations.” She said that her parents and their peers did not allow her to hate. “If you said you hated someone, that was a ‘sit down and think about it awhile’ offense.” The forgiveness, as she saw it, was God’s forgiveness and not an absolution of racism and white supremacy. It was one more powerful witness on a Sunday full of them.
With gratefulness for the lives of both Jonathan Daniels and Ruby Sales.
More to come…