January 17, 2012

Ruby Bridges Blazed a Trail to Desegregation of America's Public Schools

We did service on Martin Luther King day because that's one of the things Martin Luther King taught.  And he helped bring about the changes in America so that everyone would be treated as equals.  So today I wanted to share one of my favorite stories related to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's.  

Ruby Bridges was an ordinary 6 year old African American girl living in New Orleans, Louisiana. But her faith in God was anything but ordinary.  She would rely on that when she started her new school.  All over America, children went to schools in their neighborhoods.  This is just like today, except that when Ruby Bridges was in Kindergarten, neighborhoods were very segregated.  White families lived in neighborhoods and African American families lived in different neighborhoods.  They were in different parts of town and different sizes.  That's because of biases that continued even after slavery ended in the 1860's.  

When the African Americans who had been working as slaves became free, they had no money or other resources to help them get started.  But they knew how to work hard.  In contrast, white people had land, businesses and money.  They had built schools to educate their children.  African Americans didn't go to school—they worked in fields along with their parents as slaves.  The former slave-owning White families had only seen African Americans working in fields and assumed they didn't have the capacity to learn like White children did. 

 Isn't that the strangest idea?  So when the slaves were freed, one would expect that the children would attend the public schools with all of the children.  But the proud white families wouldn't have these former slaves in their schools.  The former slaves kept working in the fields, but now earning money and preparing to buy their own homes and start their own businesses.  As they worked and saved money, they bought homes and established neighborhoods with other African American families.  And they built schools.  Schools have been supported by tax money for many years now, but somehow more money would go to schools teaching White students than the schools teaching African American students.  (Realize that this explanation is an oversimplification of a very interesting complex issue…)
When Ruby Bridges was just about ready to start First Grade, the government decided that it was time to integrate the schools.  Her school district was chosen to be the first to do it.  Even if you lived in a different neighborhood, you could attend a better school.  In her school district, African American students were tested to see if they could succeed at a White school.  Six children passed this test, Ruby being one of them.  (Don't be alarmed that only six passed; remember that the African American schools had inferior textbooks and outdated curriculum.  They were in fact receiving a 'worse' education.)  

Three of the kids were assigned to a particular White school.  Two kids dropped out of the program.  Ruby was assigned to attend the William Frantz Public School, all by herself.  Well, she wasn't alone.  She had lots of policemen to guard her, 4 Federal Agents to walk with her, and her Mom.  But she also had Heavenly Father.  

The first day she went to school, mobs of people lined the streets near the schools.  Police and Federal Agents kept them at bay.  The people yelled terrible things at Ruby, so terrible that Newscasters had to blur the background  sound to  keep from violating decency laws to prepare to show it on TV.  One woman held a coffin with a black doll in it.  This really scared Ruby.  What was the woman saying?  Was someone going to kill her?  Other people threw tomatoes and eggs at her.  They streaked across the building walls.  The sad thing is that most of this came from White mothers!  Other White mothers pulled their kids out of school completely in protest.  Fortunately, Mrs. Henry, Ruby's new teacher, made Ruby feel safe and loved at school.  Riots broke out all over town, causing the police to pull out their riot gear and clamp down on the violence.  

Ruby's mom came on the first two days, but had to go back to work.  On the third day of school, she told Ruby, "Remember, if you get afraid, say your prayers. You can pray to God anytime, anywhere. He will always hear you."  Ruby remembered, "That was how I started praying on the way to school. The things people yelled at me didn't seem to touch me. Prayer was my protection. After walking up the steps past the angry crowd, though, I was glad to see Mrs. Henry. She gave me a hug, and she sat right by my side instead of at the big teacher's desk in the front of the room. Day after day, it was just Mrs. Henry and me, working on my lessons."

Ruby's teacher, Mrs. Henry, taught Ruby alone, as none of the other kids would be in her class.  She encouraged her and supported her.  Ruby couldn't go out to recess with the other kids, so she and Mrs. Henry played games in the classroom.  Because Mrs. Henry was so kind to Ruby, she learned that White people can be nice even though thousands of White people outside were being so mean to her.  On the way to school, Ruby began praying to not only to be unafraid, and also to forgive the White people as they yelled terrible things at her, because she realized they really didn't know what they were doing.  How amazing and profound for such a young girl to understand!  

School ended in June, and when it started in September again, the school was fully integrated!  She had children of all colors in her classroom and there was no mention again of the ugliness that happened the previous year.  Now she could play with the other kids at recess and learn with them in the classroom.  Ruby had done it!  She had blazed a trail for others to follow.  Because of what she did, it was easier for everyone to adjust to having children of all backgrounds in the same classrooms.  

Today Ruby Bridges is a mother and grandmother, and she speaks to people (with Mrs. Henry) about how God fashioned all of his children into different and unique individuals. 
Ruby said, "It turns out that because of what I went through on the front lines of the battle for school integration, people recognize my name and are eager to hear what I have to say about racism and education today. I speak to groups around the country, and when I visit schools, Mrs. Henry often comes with me. We tell kids our story and talk about the lessons of the past and how we can still learn from them today - especially that every child is a unique human being fashioned by God.  I tell them that another important thing I learned in first grade is that schools can be a place to bring people together - kids of all races and backgrounds. That's the work I focus on now, connecting our children through their schools. It's my way of continuing what God set in motion 40 years ago when he led me up the steps of William Frantz Public School and into a new world with my teacher, Mrs. Henry - a world that under his protection has reached for beyond just the two of us in that classroom."

Although Ruby was only 6 years old, she did something really hard.  Fortunately, she wasn't alone.  She had Heavenly Father with her.  Would she have had the courage she did if she had not been taught of God and how to pray?  It's such a blessing to have the gospel in our lives so that we can count on Heavenly Father to strengthen us in our challenges.

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