Growing up in the United States, there are certain bold-face names you immediately associate with American history. They are the names that are instantly recognizable to every school child: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Betsy Ross, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks. There are other names that may jangle a bell in your memory, names that depending on how much attention you paid in history class may force you to dig through those high school memories until you’re able to locate a specific lesson; names like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Medgar Evers, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Then there are names like Ruby Bridges.
In 1960, Ruby Bridges was a six-year-old first grader in New Orleans, Louisiana. In November of that year, Ruby had her first day at her new school, William Frantz Elementary, a few miles from her home. She set out that day with a bow in her hair, a shine to her shoes, and a school bag swinging from her hand. What Ruby Bridges also had that November morning was an escort of four United States Federal Marshals.
I grew up in the fading shadow of the Civil Rights Movement. I was a white girl growing up in New England, deep in Kennedy country. Even now New England is considered liberal. I imagine back then, compared to some parts of the southern US that were still reeling from the effects of desegregation, it seemed downright socialist. I knew of course who Martin Luther King, Jr. was. I was taught about Rosa Parks and how sitting down on the bus after a hard day’s work sparked an entire movement. But in the end, I was still a white girl growing up in solid blue New England. These things had little impact on my day-to-day life. I never learned the name of Ruby Bridges.
Ruby Bridges was one of six African-American children who in 1960 were responsible for the racial integration of school systems in the south. Her arrival that November day was met by an angry mob. They screamed at her, hurled abuse at her, threw things. Think about that for a moment. Think about how deep the hatred in your veins must run, how rooted the fear, to justify throwing things at a six-year-old girl. Then stop and think about how much this lone, six-year-old girl had on her shoulders.
My own son is six. He is in first grade. His biggest moment of panic so far this year has come from not being able to tie his shoe laces quickly enough. Now imagine Ruby Bridges, who had the weight of the entire civil rights movement and a Supreme Court decision on her first grade shoulders. Imagine trying to reconcile that level of hatred, of fear, of ignorance. At six years old. Then again, perhaps it was not out of the ordinary for her.
After the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been a lot of talk of white privilege. It seems to me that a lot of this talk is self-congratulatory back patting by white people who think admitting its existence resolves them of all responsibility. The fact is this: I have no idea what it is like to live my life knowing that other people judge me, ridicule me and actively hate me, based on the color of my skin. I cannot imagine what it would be like to raise my sons to be wary of wearing a hoodie, as a Louisiana mother I know is. Or to plead with them to get down when someone yells ‘get down’, to pander and ‘yes, sir‘ authority figures when pulled over. I cannot imagine what it is like to fear that my son is not going to come home one day because he didn’t get down fast enough or because he was wearing a sweatshirt that covered his face or he had a tail light out and someone’s finger got itchy on the trigger. I can’t imagine any of that, not in any meaningful way. Just like I cannot imagine my six-year-old having the courage and the strength to stand up to the level of hatred that Ruby Bridges and her contemporaries felt. You can make it sound a little nicer by calling it ignorance. You can make it sound more educated by calling it institutionalized racism. In the end, it’s easier to call it what it is.
Ruby Bridges’ parents did believe in her. They believed that those tiny shoulders could carry that impossible weight. And they did. Despite the fact that for the rest of first grade Ruby was taught by herself, alone in a classroom by the sole teacher who did not refuse to teach a black child. Despite the fact that white people stood outside the school and threaded to poison her, a six-year-old girl. Despite the fact that other parents pulled their own children out of school. Despite all of that, she carried that burden. Along with her lunch pail and her school bag, she carried an integral component of civil rights movement with her.
Perhaps I underestimate the strength of my own six-year-old. Perhaps I underestimate my own convictions, my own capacity to do what is right because I have led a life of privilege. I can only look back on Ruby’s extraordinary courage while questioning my own place in this problem we all live with. Is it enough to know that I do not have the capacity for that kind of hatred? Or is there more? I am in awe of the conviction of Ruby Bridges’ parents, who stood their own child in the line of fire, not only to make things more equitable for other African-American children in the south but also so that their daughter could get the best education she could. A quiet conviction that any parent can relate to.
Yesterday was Ruby Bridges 60th birthday. It was a long time ago that she walked up to the doors of William Franz Elementary School. It was a long time ago that she needed the escort of four Federal Marshals, a long time ago since she had to sit in a lone classroom learning the things that first graders learn. But how long has it been since she’s encountered some other form of vitriol, some other assumption of her character based on the color of her skin or the texture of her hair?
Ruby Bridges herself talks about not only the people who stood against her, but the ones who stood up, for her, but also for what was right. Neighbors who hired her father after he lost his job, friends who stood guard outside the family’s house, and the families that broke the boycott at school. Two other young girls, Pam Foreman and Yolanda Gabrielle were the only white children enrolled in school that year. Tessie Prevost, Gail Etienne and Leona Tate were other six-year-old African-American girls who integrated New Orleans schools that year. Five more pairs of young shoulders which did not bend under the weight of what was right.
We worry about putting the weight of the world on our children. But just maybe, when the weight is for the betterment of all, when it is for right, they don’t feel it as much.
**President Obama had Rockwell’s painting The Problem we all Live With, seen above, hanging outside the Oval Office for a time. When he met with Ruby Bridges and they viewed the painting together, he said to her: “I think it’s fair to say that if it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t be here today.”