Painting by Normal Rockwell Depicts Ruby Bridges On her Way to School.
The painting currently hangs in the White House.
Episode 5 of the PBS Series The African Americans, Many Rivers to Cross aired Tuesday November 19th. This particular episode was a poignant one, simply because it covered the years that were part of my own childhood. Much of the film footage I remember seeing when it happened. I was in school when the Civil Rights Movement was in full bloom. The word "integration" was on the lips of everyone--whether spoken loudly, or in whispers when white people were close by.
I remember the fears some of which resonated in the home. My mother worked for the public school system, and she was often cautious and fearful if her own job might have been in jeopardy, if any relatives were known to be active in the struggle for equal rights. The fears of losing one's job for simply having a belief in equality was real.
In Little Rock, Arkansas we had our own national crisis when Central High School was integrated and the Little Rock Nine, courageously entered the school in 1957. I was too small to fully understand what that meant--but I recall that it was explained to me by my parents, that some teenagers wanted to go to a certain school and a mean governor did not want them to go to that school. That was about all that my 6 year old mind could comprehend. And oh yes---the teenagers were the same color as me.
Elizabeth Eckford Walking into Central High School, Little Rock Arkansas
I simply did not understand.
And then there was Ruby Bridges, who entered school in 1960. By this time I was a little older ---8 years old, but that was enough to understand the issues of color and race. And I recall images in Jet Magazine of the little girl in Louisiana on her way to school. The real Ruby was a tiny girl, and I recall looking at her in her dress neatly pressed jumper, with the crinoline slip underneath, in the style of the day. I looked at her, because I had a dress like that! And this little girl did not look different from many of my own school mates.
Ruby Bridges Escorted by US Marshals to School
So Ruby went to school, was also greeted at her new school met with screams of rage and hatred.
I knew that many people did not like people of color, but Ruby was so small, she was a little girl. She could not have harmed them. But it became clear----they never saw a child.
They saw a color, they saw something that they had been taught by their parents and by the nation, to hate. Nurtured by a culture of "hate for hate's sake", and encouraged by more than a century of legalized endorsement of that hatred and mistreatment they did what they were taught to do. And as the Ruby Bridges stated in the program, "they never saw a child".
In my town:
I reflected about what happened in my own hometown. I attended a small Catholic elementary school---a segregated Catholic school, of course. (There were 3 white Catholic schools in the city, and there was the black school, St. John's.) The high schools were unique---integration had occurred quietly on the high school level. St. Scholastica Academy had quietly integrated in the early 1950s, without incident, and St. Anne's in the early 60s. The public schools were next. The press and turmoil of Little Rock were on the minds of many in the city, and it was decided that there had to be a less dramatic way to integrate the public schools. Thankfully, there was no major drama, in my hometown. Some of the process was discussed in a video made by the Ft. Smith Historical Society Oral History Project. (Scroll down to video with Mr. George McGill.)
We knew that our daily experience was not the real story, because restaurants and hotels and other public places were simply off limits, and we all knew growing up that to challenge things was dangerous. We had to obey to apartheid rules of the south, or face dangerous consequences. And always on the mind of everyone was what could happen next?
While watching Many Rivers to Cross, I remember watching most of the film footage that was shown when it aired. And like many children, looking towards a future with hope and wonder, I often feared what the restrictions would be for me.
From those years I learned early on, to ask, the question "do they allow us there?" Many of us know when driving into the country to be cautious--because we know about Sundown Towns. And countless numbers of people of my generation, when we were children never experienced the "great outdoors", because we knew that if we went the wrong way, many, if not most, would never see the child.
So common events like camping, unless it was truly protected was not a spur of the moment option for any of us. We knew it, and would be foolish to think otherwise. Unless an outdoor swimming hole was on the property of a relative--one would never dare to think that it would be fun to take a splash. We new better and our parents protected us for they also knew that strangers would never see the child.
These words stood out for me in that episode the most, and I was compelled to write some words.
They Never Saw A Child
One day, six year old Ruby went to school, and was met by an angry mob.
But they never saw a child.
Children marched in Selma, and were sprayed with water hose and bitten by dogs.
But they never saw a child.
In Birmingham, children from 6 to12 marched with Dr. King and were thrown in jail.
But they never saw a child.
In far away Soweto, far away, boys and girls took bullets.
Because there too, they never saw a child.
And in today's world, teenager Travon in Florida, walked with candy and tea.
But was killed, when an armed man, refused to see the child.
This 5th episode brought back many memories and emotions for me. These were trying times, but we are obligated to tell those stories.
I have to say a thank you to Ruby Bridges for her innocence and her courage.
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