By: Chelsea Davis-Bibb, Ed.D.
Dr. Ruth Cummings grew up during the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama. She was born on February 29, 1952, the seventh born of thirteen children. Her father Nelson Purifoy was a Methodist pastor for the AME church and was a church planter. He would plant AME churches in cities that did not have one and would revive the AME churches that needed coming back to life. Her mother, Laura Ellen Perry Purifoy, stayed home to take care of the household and children, until she decided she wanted to do more and became a bus driver. She would later transport people to and from mass meetings, the voting polls, and so much more.
In the early 1940’s, her family moved into a three-room house, but her father, who was also a carpenter, expanded the house over time and they had three bedrooms, a dining room, an inside bathroom, and a den. Growing up in Selma, Alabama was not easy as Dr. Cummings experienced and witnessed a lot from her time there as a child.
Her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement began when blacks (at that time were called Negroes) were fighting for their right to vote. She reflected on how black people “had to pay a poll tax which they couldn’t afford, and if you could afford it, then you had to take a literacy test. If you passed the literacy test, they would accuse you of cheating, and they would give you another test and make you answer questions like how many beans are in a bushel.” These were some of the things that were put in place to try and block the black vote. Dr. Cummings mentioned that these are also some of the “same obstacles they are putting in front of us now,” just in a different way.
Her first act of participation in the movement occurred during her time at Tipton High School. She and several other students left school and walked to downtown Selma and proceeded to march around the Dallas County Courthouse. They were not harmed from this demonstration, but they were suspended from school. Their suspension did not last long due to parents being upset. Dr. Cummings and other students would then skip school additional times to participate in other demonstrations.
Dr. Cumming’s home was exactly one mile from the banks of the Alabama River. They had to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to get to downtown Selma. This was the same bridge that 600 people would cross on March 7, 1965, for the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which is also known as “bloody Sunday.” The individuals who participated in this march were violently attacked in the march for voting rights.
On that bloody Sunday, Dr. Cummings and some of her family had gone down early that morning to see what was going on, but their mom made them go back home before things got started. “We could hear screams, and we went out in the street and could see smoke dust, and news reporters running on foot to make a phone call.” She mentioned that very few people had a phone, but they were one of the families that did. One of the reporters used their phone to report what was happening. She reflected on how this was a “rough time.”
Her brother Hosea, who is now deceased, was very active in the movement, and was one of the individuals who were wounded on bloody Sunday. She said he came home wreaking of tear gas, with minor cuts and bruises. Proudly, her brother, finished the entire fifty mile walk from Selma to Montgomery.
Another rough time she recalled was when the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died. “You could hear screams throughout the neighborhood and the sadness. Some things you don’t ever get out of your head,” she stated. Dr. Cummings had the opportunity to see Dr. King speak in person on a few occasions. When asked what Dr. King was like in person, she recalled that he was “bigger than life.” The work that Dr. King and many others did was very important to the black community, but sadly things are coming around full circle. Dr. Cummings expressed, “We are struggling now to get the right to vote. It’s unbelievable.” The issues that we are currently facing when it comes to voting are just “another form of a poll tax or a literary test.” We are almost powerless to do anything about it, except to go out and vote,” she stated.
If Dr. King were alive today, she emphasized that we would not be in this condition that our nation is in now. “He would have raised up so many people like him to carry on his work.” She further stated, “We got complacent. We let desegregation change who we were as a people, when desegregation was the worst thing that happened to us. It hurt us. It really did. We had our own businesses. We had everything. We decided that we wanted to be like the white man but we’re not like them.” The black communities were sufficient and had everything they needed to survive, but when integration occurred, it was the beginning of the black communities being torn apart.
She made it known that life in Selma was not a fun time because you were always looking over your shoulder. “It was amazing that we made it out of there by the Grace of God,” she stated. She also spoke about the current state of Selma and how you can feel the history in its presence, especially when you cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. You can feel the agony and anguish that is still there, which is why she does not go home as much as she should. “It’s stuck in the 60’s, so you can feel the history there,” she exclaimed.
Dr. Cummings is saddened by the state of our nation and how history is repeating itself. She said that “you try to let the law work,” but that maybe it is time that we do some “civil disobedience” again. It is time that we get out again and start marching to get our voices heard. She also cannot stress enough the importance of voting. We must get out to vote!
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Until we break down these obstacles and challenges that are trying to hold us back, we must continue to fight for what’s right, and that is the message Dr. Cummings wants everyone to receive.