Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ruby Bridges

Yesterday, I stood between two African-American women, our hands clasped together in prayer.  We are all part of our church's praise team, and we'd just finished having a brunch and listening to two people talk.  One of the people who spoke was an elder at my church, a very dear African-American man.  (I was in a Sunday evening small group he led for a while.  The reason he should be an elder is because, anyone who can put up with ME in a small group deserves to be an elder!)

Were it not for the courage of a six-year-old girl in November of 1960, such an occurence may not have been possible.

Today, I got to hear the story of that six-year-old girl.

Ruby Bridges (Hall) was born on September 8, 1954.  Less than four months earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had handed down their decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ordering the desegregation of public schools "with all deliberate speed".

The South responded with deliberation, but not with speed.  In fact, in most places in the South, the "deliberation" they responded with was the deliberation to make it as hard as possible for black children to go to school with white children.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1960, the NAACP put out a request:  will you volunteer your children to help integrate the New Orleans public school system?  Ruby Bridges' family said yes.  Mr. Bridges was reluctant, but Mrs. Bridges convinced him to let Ruby attend.

So Ruby took a test--a test that was designed to set up kids to fail--and was one of only six black children, out of 140, who passed.  The stage was set.  The New Orleans schools would be integrated.

If any of you are familiar with Ruby Bridges' story, you probably have seen Norman Rockwell's painting "The Problem We All Live With":

When Ruby told her story today, she sat on stage with my minister and just spoke, very simply.  It was her child's innocence, she said, that protected her.  Everyone was excited for her to go to this new school, and people said over and over that she was so smart because she was one of the few kids that had passed the test to get into school.

On November 14, 1960, as Ruby was dressing for school (in a coat that she said she hated!) someone knocked at the door, and when it was opened, a man announced that they were federal marshals and they were there to escort Ruby to school.  Ruby thought, "Who are they?"  No one had told Ruby about the men, and no one had explained to her that she was going to be integrating the school.  This was a time when children--especially in the African-American community, Ruby explained--were "seen and not heard".  You didn't ask questions.

So, Ruby and four federal marshals climbed into a car, and they were escorted to William Frantz Elementary School by the members of Ruby's community.

But when Ruby got there, she was taken to the principal's office and stayed there all day.  She had noticed the crowds screaming and shouting, and she thought, this is just like a parade!  They all came out for me because I'm so smart and I must have gone straight from kindergarten into college!

At the end of the day, when she went home, she thought, college is easy!

She went home, and she jumped rope to the chant she'd heard that day:  "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate!"  What she did not know was that 500 kids were taken out of school that day by parents who did not want their children to attend school with a black child.

And then the second day came.  And that was the day that Ruby's mother got very nervous.  Because now the world knew that the New Orleans schools were being integrated.  And the world sent the media to cover it.

The federal marshals came to the door, took Ruby into the car, and when they got to school, they told her, walk straight ahead and don't look at the crowd.

She got to her classroom, and the door opened and a woman named Barbara Henry introduced herself, and said, I'm going to be your teacher.  Ruby's reaction:  She's white.  She's just like all those people out there who were screaming.

Except she wasn't like them.  Ruby, while speaking today, described Barbara Henry as "the nicest teacher she had".

For the entire year, it was Ruby Bridges and Barbara Henry, alone, in a classroom.

On that second day, a white girl crossed the picket line.  Five or six other families--at personal risk--sent their children to Ruby's school.  Ruby could hear the kids, but when she told Mrs. Henry that she heard them, Mrs. Henry wouldn't tell her about them.  Because, the principal--who was on the side of the demonstrators--had hidden the kids so that they wouldn't see Ruby.

Finally, Ruby got to meet the kids.  Her reaction:  "I knew I heard kids!"  And like all children, she wanted friends.  But one little boy told her:  "I can't play with you because you're a nigger."  That was when the light dawned.  "So this is what this is all about."

She wasn't angry.  If, Ruby said, her parents had told her not to play with a white child, she would have done it because her parents told her to.  "We pass racism on to our children," she said.

Ruby finished that first grade.  She grew up to become a travel agent, and then lost that job.  Restless and at a loss, she asked God, "What am I supposed to do?"  She heard in response, "You're not doing what I want you to do."  Her answer, "Then you need to tell me what I need to do, and if you are who I think you are, I'll do it."

It so happened that, at that time, she was caring for the children of her late brother, and the kids were attending the same school she had integrated.  The current principal, after telling her, I know who you are, encouraged her to volunteer.  And around the same time, Robert Coles' book, The Story of Ruby Bridges, was published  . . . and when the publisher said, we want you to do publicity for it, and we'll pay you $50,000, she said, "I think I can do that."

While her courage as a child moved me, it was the portion of the story she told about her adult life that nearly moved me to tears.

Ruby had four children.  Her second son, along with one of her grandsons, was shot in a drive-by shooting.  Ruby was just simply grateful that they were alive.  Her oldest son, though, was consumed by the shooting.  Four months later, Ruby's oldest son was rear-ended, and after her son got out and conversed with the driver, he turned around.  The door to the driver's car opened.  The person that emerged shot Ruby's son 11 times.  He died four hours later at a hospital.  The police thought that Ruby's son may have been investigating his brother's shooting on his own, and that the shooters found him first.

And right after that, Katrina hit and destroyed the home she lived in.

Two years after her son's murder, she awoke fearing that she was having a heart attack.  At the hospital, she met a nurse and, in the conversation, learned that this nurse was the ER nurse who had cared for her son before he died.  She said, I prayed with him the whole time.  The reason you're here today isn't because you're having a heart attack (which she was not.)  You came here for me.  God had sent Ruby there so she could hear about her son's last moments.  She said to us, there is a God, he is real, and he hears us.

Ruby was invited to speak on faith and politics at last week's Democratic National Convention. Given her experiences as a child and as a mother who'd lost a child to violence, the inevitable question came:  So, how do you feel about Black Lives Matter?

Her answer:  Black lives do matter.  They mattered to her, her husband, her sons, her grandson, her widowed daughter-in-law, her grandchildren left without a father.  Her son's life had been taken by someone who looked like him.  And then she said, "Black lives have to matter to us [to other blacks] first."

And then she said, "There is an 'us and them'.  It is good and evil.  Evil doesn't care what you look like.  We're busy talking about color, but there is a bigger force of evil.  We are up against evil," she said, "we need to be aware of the real war."

That, she said, was the message she delivered to the Democratic National Convention.

She holds no anger, no bitterness against those who mistreated her as a child.  She holds sorrow and grief over the violence that killed her son.  But above all, she holds a faith in God that has brought her through; the God that she says is real, and that he hears us.

She was greeted with a standing ovation.  She received several ovations during her talk.  We thanked her with a standing ovation.  All of them were deserved.

I visited the exhibit afterwards which told the story of how Christians had participated in the battle for equality in education.  Several of our members acted as guides, telling different parts of the story and asking us to leave comments.  At the end, we got a chance to briefly meet Ruby.  Several members of our church had their picture taken with her.

In these days of violence, hate, and "us vs. them", Ruby Bridges reminded us today that the war is with evil.  And she put a face on those that fought in the war against evil; a woman who sat in an empty classroom and taught her, a nurse who spoke of the last hours of Ruby's son, a publisher that encouraged her to tell her story.

Our theme this year at church is "Fear[less]", i.e. not being totally without fear, but learning to live with less fear.  I do not think it is an accident that, in this year of police shootings, terrorist attacks, and a volatile, contentious Presidential campaign, that we are learning about fearing less, and that a woman spoke to us today who pointed the way to living with less fear.

Sunday at 10 a.m. has been called "the most segregated hour in America".  My church tries hard to be the exception to that rule.  Ruby Bridges, and other heroes of the Civil Rights movement, show that it is possible for love to overcome hate, for blacks and whites to clasp hands around a circle of prayer, for all of us to worship the God that loves us, no matter the color of our skin.

Just my .04, adjusted for inflation.

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