Women in History Wednesdays: Ruby Bridges

by Rocco Graziano

[Note: I would like to point out at the start of this piece, which delves into racism and discrimination in past and present America, that, as a white person, I believe my perspective on these issues can only go so far.]

The date is November 14, 1960. Ruby Bridges enters the doors of William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana for the first time. It was a day of many firsts: it was Ruby’s first day of 1st Grade and she was the first African-American student to attend an all-white school in Louisiana. Ruby’s story is a tale of strength, courage, and perseverance. Yet, it also highlights for us today the recency of segregated society in America. On this anniversary of a triumph, I urge us to reflect as a society on how much progress we have made, and how much more we have to go.

The process of the desegregation of schools began in 1954, the year of Ruby’s birth, with the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education. The ruling declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and state-sponsored segregation to be unconstitutional. Integration, however, was slow and begrudging. The Southern states did everything in their power to stall — from ordering unfair entry exams to African-American students, to physically blocking them from entering schools. Often only the intervention of the National Guard persuaded segregationists to stand aside. Ruby experienced the same situation. She was forced to sit for an unfair entrance exam, which she managed to pass with flying colors. She was forced to deal with racial slurs, hatred, and protests against her right to an education. For over a year, she had to be accompanied to and from school by four federal marshals for her protection. Yet, through all the hardship, all the racism, all the pressure against her, Ruby persevered. She attended William Frantz Elementary, and became a force for good in the world. She founded, in 1999, the Ruby Bridges Foundation to fight racism and discrimination across the country.

Ruby Bridges’ life and values, as well as the recency of her famed school day, have a lot to teach us about our modern society. The belief is often held, usually by conservative white Americans, that America today is a “post-racial” society, where racism and discrimination no longer exist. Before I am inevitably accused of making generalizations, this is a statistical based notion. In a December 2014 Washington Post poll, more than half of white respondents answered that they thought that the American justice system treats all races equally, as opposed to less than 10% of African-Americans. Similarly, a 2015 Gallup poll found that only 4% of white respondents thought racism was still a major problem in American society. The idea of a “post-racial” America has flourished as a conservative talking point, especially after President Obama’s 2008 election.

This concept tends to be supported by the “evidence” (and I use that term only in the loosest of sense) that legal segregation has been outlawed for a long time, and that racism is a thing of the past. This could not be further from the truth. Aside from the ample evidence of the existence of rampant systemic racism in our current society, Ruby Bridges is only 64 years old — young enough to feasibly have been my mother.  The notion that we live in a “post-racial” society falls apart when you consider that there are millions of people living today whose lives were affected by Jim Crow laws and legal segregation, and that’s ignoring the millions whose lives have been affected by racism since the end of legal segregation. Ruby’s work, especially the Ruby Bridges Foundation, highlight that racism is still alive and well in America, and that we can not ignore it. in fact, her life story teaches us that we must fight discrimination at every turn, and work to create a more equal society each day for future generations.

Michele Dale