WASHINGTON – In 1965, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was a hotbed for social protest and bred students passionate about equality, justice and civil rights. Seventeen year-old, Ruby Sales, born in Jemison, Ala., was one of those students.
"Once you got the religion of civil rights and you were really in the movement, it was hard to turn around, because there was something about it that wouldn't let you loose," said Sales.
She joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and when youngsters from Lowndes County, Ala., called on the group to help organize demonstration for back payment for sharecroppers and a voting drive, Sales, a sophomore, knew that she had to go.
A mob of white men wielding baseball bats, trash can lids and rakes greeted the peaceful protesters. The cops arrested Sales and her group, holding them for a week feeding them "slop." Sales said some were tortured. They were afraid to drink the water.
When the group of a little more than 20 demonstrators were released a week later with little fanfare they were relieved and suspicious. The dusty and hot streets of the town were deserted.
Four of the young activists Ruby Sales; Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopalian seminarian; Father Richard Morrisroe, a Roman Catholic priest and Joyce Bailey, a local teen, left the group and walked across the street to buy sodas at the grocery store they had frequented just a week earlier. Sales and Bailey were black. Daniels and Morrisroe were white.
Sales led the group. Friends would say that she was always in the front.
As she walked up the short set of cement cinder block steps to enter the store, waiting for them in the doorway was Thomas Coleman, a white volunteer special deputy sheriff armed with a pistol and a 12-guage shotgun.
"When I got to the door, he said, 'Bitch, I'll blow your brains out!'" remembered Sales. According to the student, Coleman leveled the shotgun on her and everything seemed to move in slow motion. Daniels pulled Sales down the concrete steps. Coleman squeezed the trigger. Sales fell sideways off the steps as the shotgun blast nearly tore Daniels in half.
"I thought I was dead," said Sales. "I thought, 'This is what dead must feel like.'"
But Sales wasn't dead. Coleman fired another round, hitting Father Morrisroe in the back as he fled with Bailey. Sales crawled out and hid behind a car near the grocery store.
Then, Sales said, the volunteer sheriff called the police. Later, Coleman was charged with manslaughter in the death of Jonathan Daniels and claimed self-defense. A jury of his peers found him not guilty in two hours. He never served a day in jail for the incident.
Though traumatized by the experience, the young Sales continued to work with SNCC. It a period of rank optimism, when many young people, black and white, were determined to remove the walls of segregation and, in the process, change America for the better.
"It's not that people were suicidal but they were making a statement that they wouldn't let the fear of death turn them around, they were moved by the spirit toward freedom," Sales said.
She continued her work in civil rights and after graduating from Episcopal Divinity School in 2001 founded The SpiritHouse Project, a non-profit research, education and action organization that works for racial, economic, and social justice.
There, she was able to rekindle her work as an activist by tracking what is formally called extra judicial killings of blacks – the deliberate murder of blacks outside of the judicial system, often by law enforcement officials.
"It's a crisis for African American people because we are not safe in this country. We are profiled for hate crimes by people who are paid and empowered to protect us," explained Sales. "We are not safe, our children are not safe and we are targeted for these murders through tasings, hangings, shootings and beatings."
Sales continued: "It's a crisis, because it's not just a black problem, it's an American problem."
It's a crisis that dates back to the 1890s and the early 1900s, said Sales, when lynching became a virulent reality in this country.
According to archival records from the Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, 1,778 blacks were lynched from 1890 to 1910, compared to 526 whites lynched over the same time period. In 1892 at the peak use of the terror tactic, 161 blacks were lynched and 69 whites were lynched, the highest year for lynchings on record.
Close to 3,500 blacks and 1,300 whites were lynched from 1882-1968.
Sales understood that type of violence against black people on very deep intellectual and spiritual levels. So, her antennae were already up when she homed in on the suspicious death of Billey Joe Johnson in Benndale, Miss. in 2009 and went down to Lucedale, Miss., a neighboring town, to investigate.
On an early December morning in 2008, police pulled Billey Joe Johnson, 17, over for speeding, one of the indulgences of a star high school running back with college skills and NFL dreams.
Later, the George County Sheriff's Department would say that he tried to break into the home of a sometimes girlfriend in Lucedale, Miss., and that he ran a red light leaving her house. The girlfriend was white. Billey Joe was black.
The sheriff's deputy who pulled the teen over said that after Billy Joe gave him his license, the teen went back to his truck an retrieved a 12-guage shotgun that he used for hunting and shot himself in the face. Sales found the report unbelievable and said that the case showed the hallmark characteristics of a modern day form of lynching.
"Immediately, that historical collective memory kicked in," said Sales. The suspicious death, the quick and incredulous suicide angle pushed by law enforcement, and the white woman, were all tell-tale warning signs, according to Sales.
Lynchings were often seen as the final solution used to intimidate and disenfranchise blacks, especially black men who were portrayed as a clear and present danger to the sanctity of white women, Sales said.
Sales began to link that case and more than a dozen other cases, some covered in the media, others just covered up.
"I said, 'Oh my god, we've got a crisis here, black folks are right back where we were after Reconstruction," recalled Sales.
Sales said that the nation is being torn apart by these acts of white supremacy and the acts pose a clear and present danger to America's image in the world and our ability to forthrightly deal with foreign policy.
She asked, "How do you talk about countries who don't have democracy when the very heart of democracy is being shredded at home?"
In April 2013, The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a human rights group focused on self-determination in the black community, released a report detailing the extrajudicial killings of black people in the United States. The group compiled the data from Internet searches, public documents, police reports and eyewitness accounts.
According to the report there were 313 such killings in 2012, nearly one every 28 hours and almost twice the number of murders when compared to the number of lynchings at their peak in 1892.
According to the report in almost half of the killings, police officers, security guards and vigilantes said they "felt threatened," "feared for their life," or "were forced to shoot to protect themselves or others"
Thirteen percent of the killings involved suspects firing a weapon "either before or during the officer's arrival."
"The extrajudicial murders are tools of social control to re-establish white supremacy and to control African Americans and other people," said Sales. "Violence has always been a means of doing that. The same ideological perspective that gave rise to lynching is in place today."
Nothing has changed, added Sales.
"We have to begin to offer that critique in our community to ask why are our hearts are so hardened in the face of these deaths," said Sales. "Why do we believe in the criminalization of African American people, especially African American men? Why do we believe that black boys and black men are urban animals? Why do we believe that? These are our children. These are our relatives and yet we seem numb."
Sales draws a direct line from the lynchings that took place from 1882-1968, to the violence that blacks and whites endured during the Civil Rights Movement to the shooting deaths of Amadou Diallo by New York City police officers, Oscar Grant III by Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers in Oakland, Calif., Jack Lamar Robinson by police in Waycross, Ga., and the suspicious deaths of Billey Joe Johnson in Benndale, Miss., Chavis Carter in Jonesboro, Ark., and a number of other cases.
Sales plans to invite some of the family members affected by these killings who haven't benefitted from the direct media spotlight to an event in Washington, D.C. on April 22 to help expand the narrative about the extrajudicial killings and to help people understand that this is not just about a few people being killed. This is a major organized, systemic issue.
"National leaders are not standing up and speaking for the families, the families are speaking for themselves," said Sales. "They are the ones that have the credible voices and have the right to make their demands known."
(To learn more about the event on extrajudicial killings that will be hosted by The SpiritHouse Project, visit SpiritHouseProject.org.)