Ruby Bridges. Provided

Letter to the editor

Dear Editor:

The New Orleans school desegregation crisis was a period of intense public resistance in New Orleans following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. The conflict peaked in 1960, when U.S. Circuit Judge J. Skelly Wright ordered that desegregation in New Orleans begin on November 14 of that year.

On November 14, 1960, two New Orleans elementary schools began desegregation. Leona Tate, Tessie Provost, and Gail Etienne, who became known as the McDonogh Three, joined McDonogh 19 Elementary School, while Ruby Bridges joined William Frantz Elementary School. All four 6-year-old girls were met with death threats, racial slurs, and taunts. Widespread boycotts began immediately, and by the end of the day, few White children remained at either school. There is a famous photo of young Ruby Bridges being escorted from school by U.S, Marshalls.

On November 16, a race riot broke out in front of a meeting of the Orleans Parish School Board. Following the riot, United States Marshals began accompanying the four girls to their respective schools, while death threats against the children continued. During the next few days, other White parents began returning their children to school.

It took ten more years for the New Orleans public schools to fully integrate. In September 1962, the Catholic schools of Orleans Parish were also integrated.

Ruby Bridges is a Civil Rights activist and the author of children’s books. The 68-year-old speaker and influencer who visits schools and talks with kids, was the six-year-old Black child who desegregated the all-White New Orleans elementary school in 1960. Her most recent book, “I Am Ruby Bridges: How one six-year-old girl’s march to school changed the world,” tells the story of her ordeal. 

Her parents shielded her from the ugliness, the isolation, the rejection she would experience. That’s a little different from the parental concerns of today’s generation wanting to shield their children from feeling guilt and the unintended responsibility for racism as they learn true history. 

Little Ruby knew she was going to a new school, was told to be on her ‘best behavior’ and she didn’t understand why White people and Black people were lined up together, shouting, waving their hands and throwing things. It reminded her of Mardi Gras; she expected to see a parade. She entered the school and with her mother, sat in the principal’s office the entire day. The White parents rushed into the school after she entered and removed every child. She spent an entire year in an empty classroom. That is a lot for a six-year-old to process. 

She didn’t know that the isolation was because of her and the color of her skin. It wasn’t until she met the four or five other kids whose parents had crossed the picket line to bring their kids to school, albeit they were hidden from Ruby. It’s peculiar that these parents who braved the picket line instructed their children not to play with Ruby. She had her ‘aha’ moment when she was introduced into their circle. They were kids, she just wanted to play with kids her own age. One little boy said, “I can’t play with you. My mom said not to play with you.” He called her the infamous epithet; that was her introduction to racism. It was instilled in the children by the parents. 

I often enjoy reading columnist George Will; I usually learn something, a new word, and he gives his readers a peek into the world of conservative thinkers. I increase my vocabulary and increase my understanding of conservative pushback against progressive’s challenges to things ‘systemic’.

In a recent column, Will lends his conservative review of the Twitter crucifixion of history professor, and president of the American Historical Association, James H. Sweet, who dared to deviate from progressive orthodoxy. 

Sweet wrote, “presentism” – interpreting the past through the lens of the present – has permeated the discipline of teaching and writing history in academia. “Historical question often emanates out of present concerns” but “doing history with integrity requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors.” 

Sweet posits that we must interpret the past through the lens of contemporary social justice; can we present relevant history without the prisms of race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, and capitalism, colonialism and slavery. Does the perspective of ‘woke’ necessarily make moral inferiors of historical icons as Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Jackson and others we hold up as stalwarts of decency, pillars of our democracy? 

Accountability matters. The generational inequalities, social, economic and political disparities of today are a direct result of the attitudes and practices of those historical figures living in the norms of their times. They chose to go along to get along, actively participated in the injustice and inhumanities of their era. But we can’t have it both ways; we hold these iconic historical figures to have possessed impeccable wisdom, vision and moral integrity as they laid the framework of this great democracy. Their wisdom, their integrity, their moral decency succumbed to the norms of their day. Were they exceptional men? 

The intrinsic attitudes of race and social standing of the races held by these founders still permeates every fiber of America: even into the fantasy world of entertainment. Racist vitriol against actors of color in Star Wars and Rings of Power is trolling online.  These actors only want the chance to dream as everyone else in America. 

If we lay open the pages of our history without redaction, without scrubbing away the ugliness, without whitewashing the presentation, we may gain traction on alleviating the arrogance of privilege and the unconscious bias in our world. 

Norman Franklin

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