Ruby Bridges and the Problem We All (Still) Live With
Every other Wednesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
In November of 1960, Ruby Bridges made her famous walk to integrate a Southern school. That’s six years after 1954’s Brown v. The Board of Education decision that segregated schools were unconstitutional—six years that comprised Ruby’s entire life. In 1963, Norman Rockwell depicted Ruby’s walk in “The Problem We All Live With.” It’s a gripping image of Ruby, clearly a small child dressed in her finest clothes, surrounded by U.S. marshals as she walks past a wall graffitied with racist slurs. According to Debra Michals’s article for The National Women’s History Museum, “Ruby and her mother were escorted by four federal marshals to the school every day that year. She walked past crowds screaming vicious slurs at her. Undeterred, she later said she only became frightened when she saw a woman holding a black baby doll in a coffin.”
What kind of problem—what kind of disease—do we still live with that endangers a child for wanting an education?There are several things that stood out to me when I learned it was the 66th anniversary of Bridges’s walk. For one thing, the dates of the desegregation case before the Supreme Court, the effort to integrate Ruby’s district, and the further three-year lapse until Rockwell’s painting show the different paces of law and culture. It takes time to enforce court rulings, and even enforcement of law (sometimes with a show of at least potential force, as the presence of the marshals indicates) defies cultural norms and expectations. So, there can be a ruling to desegregate schools, but that doesn’t necessarily affect racism or de facto segregation. Rockwell’s painting title depicts a present tense as well. By the time he completed the painting, Ruby was 9 years old, but the image captures her as a 6-year-old still making the same walk, metaphorically, in the present. I’d say it’s a problem we still live with.
Until I read Michals’s article, I didn’t realize that Ruby had been accompanied by her mother, or that the marshals escorted them every day. Given the tension and hateful rhetoric of that first day, it makes sense. Rockwell’s image takes the vantage point of a child, a viewer about eye-level with Bridges, perhaps someone in the crowd who shares the same perspective as Ruby, at least based on similar height. Is that viewer friend or foe? It’s impossible to tell, yet Rockwell’s title claims universal responsibility for the problem of racism even as the painting focuses on the singular, and breathtakingly brave, little girl.
It’s not hard to remember that Ruby Bridges, in 1960, was a little girl. It’s easy for people in positions of privilege to think that childhood is a time of protection and innocence, but the anniversary of Ruby Bridges’s walk reminds me just how often our children are at the front lines of seismic shifts in law and culture. Children can be taught racism. Parents like Ruby’s mother walk alongside their children literally and metaphorically, instructing them about how to live in a racist world. There’s always a time when those parents aren’t there, can’t be there. How did Ruby’s mother instill her with such courage to walk, eyes forward and head high, aware of the dangers yet not seeing herself as a victim? What a marvelous, heartbreaking example of faith in its most biblical terms—the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
I feel sick when I read the description of the “black baby doll in a coffin.” What kind of problem—what kind of disease—do we still live with that endangers a child for wanting an education? And yes, I say still, because as I research Ruby Bridges I’m thinking about all the children today wondering when their families will be deported or about children taunting other children with racist language, fear, and hatred passed down through the decades. The victories of the Civil Rights Movement, victories like Brown v. The Board of Education, can only be victories insofar as we commit to cultural change. If children can learn racism, they can unlearn it. So too can adults.
Ruby, her family, and her community all suffered and struggled through the difficult process of desegregation. We can look back today and wonder how well that process worked. We can change laws but cultural shifts occur not with a new administration but with a change of heart. I don’t mean that to be flippant or clichéd but to intimate that Christians in particular need serious examination of conscience—and sometimes radical surgery—to excise the sins of racism. I don’t see how hatred of God’s children, created in His image, can be anything but sinful, and I think we must be vigilant in confronting, as the confessional reminds us, not just what we’ve done, but what we have left undone.
Image by the US Department of Justice via Wikimedia Commons.