The Courage of Children

My wife and I took a trip to New Orleans recent­ly. On a tour bus we passed William Frantz Pub­lic School. Do you know the sig­nif­i­cance of that school?  Ruby Bridges was 6 years old when she was select­ed to attend the school, the only black stu­dent, by virtue of the order to deseg­re­gate schools based on the Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion deci­sion many years pri­or. Her sto­ry is noth­ing less than heroic:

Ruby and her moth­er were escort­ed by four fed­er­al mar­shals to the school every day that year. She walked past crowds scream­ing vicious slurs at her. Unde­terred, she lat­er said she only became fright­ened when she saw a woman hold­ing a black baby doll in a cof­fin. She spent her first day in the principal’s office due to the chaos cre­at­ed as angry white par­ents pulled their chil­dren from school. Ardent seg­re­ga­tion­ists with­drew their chil­dren per­ma­nent­ly. Bar­bara Hen­ry, a white Boston native, was the only teacher will­ing to accept Ruby, and all year, she was a class of one. Ruby ate lunch alone and some­times played with her teacher at recess, but she nev­er missed a day of school that year. 

While some fam­i­lies sup­port­ed her bravery—and some north­ern­ers sent mon­ey to aid her family—others protest­ed through­out the city. The Bridges fam­i­ly suf­fered for their courage: Abon [her father] lost his job, and gro­cery stores refused to sell to Lucille [her moth­er]. Her share-crop­ping grand­par­ents were evict­ed from the farm where they had lived for a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry. Over time, oth­er African Amer­i­can stu­dents enrolled; many years lat­er, Ruby’s four nieces would also attend. In 1964, artist Nor­man Rock­well cel­e­brat­ed her courage with a paint­ing of that first day enti­tled, “The Prob­lem We All Live With.”

The Prob­lem We All Live With/Norman Rockwell/Currently hangs in the White House

I heard about Ruby for the first time in a book by Denise Shek­er­jian about win­ners of the MacArthur Award for cre­ativ­i­ty, one of whom was Robert Coles, a child psy­chi­a­trist who had stum­bled across Ruby while he was in the Ser­vice, sta­tioned in Mis­sis­sip­pi in the ear­ly 1960’s. Shek­er­jian described Coles’s con­nec­tion with Ruby.

They became friends, and [Ruby] trust­ed him with her wor­ries and hopes that, in time, [Coles] record­ed in [his book] The Moral Life of Chil­dren:

I knew I was just Ruby, just Ruby try­ing to go to school, and wor­ry­ing that I could­n’t be help­ing my mom­ma with the kids younger than me, like I did on the week­ends and in the sum­mer.  But I guess I also knew I was the Ruby who had to do it–to go to school and stay there, no mat­ter what those peo­ple said, stand­ing out­side. And besides, the min­is­ter remind­ed me that God choos­es us to do His will, and so I had to be His Ruby, if that’s what He want­ed.  And then that white lady wrote and told me she was going to stop shout­ing at me, because she’d decid­ed I was­n’t bad, even if inte­gra­tion was bad, then my mom­ma said I’d become ‘her Ruby,’ the lady’s, just as she said in her let­ter, and I was glad; and I was glad I got all the nice let­ters from peo­ple who said I was stand­ing up for them, and I was walk­ing for them, and they were think­ing of me, and they were with me, and I was their Ruby, too, they said.”

We rode by Ruby Bridges’s school and the tour guide/bus dri­ver said we were pass­ing a his­tor­i­cal place and he men­tioned Ruby. She was a hero­ine as a child and also as an activist years lat­er. They were going to tear down the school after Kat­ri­na, but Ruby Bridges spear­head­ed an effort to get it des­ig­nat­ed on the Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places and find funds to repair it. The last irony is that today, because of white flight, it’s 100% black kids attending. 

(If you want to learn more about Ruby Bridges’s inspir­ing life and incred­i­ble work, this arti­cle in The Guardian is a start­ing point.)

There’s sad­ness and some­thing over­whelm­ing­ly bit­ter­sweet about Ruby’s sto­ry, maybe because her inno­cent courage shows us the way. Indeed, racism is learned behavior.

Maybe our coun­try is a bet­ter place today than it was back then in the ear­ly 1960’s. 


Whether it is or isn’t, Ruby Bridges remains my hero.


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