September 15, 2016
Krista Tippett, host: “Where does it hurt?” That’s a question the civil rights legend Ruby Sales learned to ask during the days of that movement — a question she found to have a power to drive to the heart of the matter. It’s a question we scarcely know how to ask in public life now. But it gets at human dynamics we will be living and reckoning with, whoever our next president might be. Ruby Sales says we must be as clear about what we love as about what we hate if we want to make change. And even as she unsettles some of what we think we know about the force of religion in civil rights history, Ruby Sales names a “spiritual crisis of white America” as a calling of this time. I interviewed her at a convening of 20 theologians seeking to reimagine the public good of theology for this century.
Ms. Ruby Sales: What is it that public theology can say to the white person in Massachusetts who’s heroin addicted? That’s why Donald Trump is essential. People think he’s speaking to that pain that they’re feeling. I don’t hear anyone speaking to the 45-year-old person in Appalachia who feels like they’ve been eradicated — because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday, because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Ruby Sales is one of just 50 people spotlighted in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. She lives in Atlanta, where she runs the non-profit Spirit House Project.
Ms. Tippett: Ruby, when I was getting ready to interview you, there are two sources that I found that were wonderful for me for preparing. And one was a series of conversations you did with Vincent Harding, who we miss.
Ms. Sales: Definitely.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah — and who was such a great person. And also, a panel that you did at the American Academy of Religion meeting last year. And Serene Jones told me about this after it happened and said it was just so astonishing. And I’ve been quoting from this panel ever since, including in a conversation I had with Patrisse Cullors of Black Lives Matter a few months ago. And that also motivated me to want to have you here with us. So I want to start where I always start my conversations by just asking how you would start to talk about — what was the spiritual background of your childhood?
Ms. Sales: I grew up in the South. I’m from three generations of Southern Baptist preachers. My father was a Southern Baptist preacher and a chaplain in the Army. And I was bred on black folk religion. It was a religion that combined the ideals of American democracy with a theological sense of justice. It was a religion that said that people who were considered property and disposable were essential in the eyes of God and even essential in a democracy, although we were enslaved. And it was a religion where the language and the symbols were accessible, that the God talk was accessible, to even 7-year-olds. As a 7-year-old, I could sing 50 songs without missing a line. And everybody in the community had access to the theological microphone. So as a little black girl growing up in the South, I was deeply influenced by this black folk religion.
Ms. Tippett: You said something to Vincent Harding — you said, “Religion, for me, growing up in Columbus, Georgia, was the ground that I stood on that positioned us to stand against the wind.”
Ms. Sales: The winds — yes — to stand against the winds of Southern apartheid, to stand against the winds — how do I describe — I grew up in the heart of Southern apartheid, and I’m not saying that I didn’t realize that it existed, but our parents were spiritual geniuses who created a world and a language where the notion that I was inadequate or inferior or less than never touched my consciousness.
I grew up believing that I was a first class human being and a first class person. And our parents were spiritual geniuses who were able to shape a counterculture of black folk religion that raised us from disposability to being essential players in society. And it also taught us something serene about love. “I love everybody. I love everybody. I love everybody in my heart.” And so hate was not anything in our vocabulary.
Ms. Tippett: I love that — hate was not in your vocabulary.
Ms. Sales: Absolutely not.
Ms. Tippett: But you do make this really important distinction between black folk religion, which is what nourished you, which is what formed you, and the black church and black preachers, which are in the picture, but which is mostly what we’ve seen as the picture. And you say in one place that the heart of the Southern Freedom Movement, it wasn’t as much black preachers as it was black congregations, ordinary people, who participated in extraordinary things on this foundation that you’re describing.
Ms. Sales: Well, first of all, black folk religion grew up in the bush harbors on plantations. There were no buildings. There was not an institutionalized church.
Ms. Tippett: It was like outdoors in a sanctuary, trees, secret meetings. Right.
Ms. Sales: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. It was a gathering spot for the community. And it was in this setting that black people began to talk about God in this society where they were enslaved. And everybody participated. The spirituals came up out of this environment. And everyone had a voice in the conversation, so it was not as if the preacher’s voice was the most primary and most essential voice. It was participatory.
It was black folk religion. It was ordinary black people and not black preachers. Most black preachers stood over and against the movement. But it was really ordinary black people in the South who really forced the church to allow mass meetings and other places to meet there. And Martin Luther King should not be seen as the black church. He came out of black folk religion and was part of the Southern Freedom Movement.
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