Oliver Brown, Lucille Bridges, and Me

Parenthood is life changing.  Everything changes when that baby is born.  Sleep patterns.  Eating habits.  Social interaction.  Everything.  I think I was most surprised to find how much having had a child affected my decision making process.  Now, every decision runs through an extra filter of Good For Thor.  Where I shop for groceries.  Where I work.  What trips we take.  Where we live.

I’ve said before how thankful I am that we have been able to afford good child care.  I have said how grateful I am that we have been able to choose our child care, and in the couple of instances I wasn’t satsified with Thor’s level of care, I could move him without worrying about how we were going to afford it.  Bryan has worked incredibly hard, and sacrificed a lot to better situate himself in his career, and I have pressed forward in every way that I could so that we were able to be in that position.  That work has also paid off in our ability to choose where to live based on school districts.  (It actually worked out that it cost much less for us to live in a better school district, than it would cost to send Thor to private school.  Go figure.)

If you had told me, ten years ago, that I would be choosing where to live based on a school district, I’d have laughed at you.  If you had told me that I would be sitting down and looking at the cost of private school, versus the cost of living in a different school district, versus what that would mean for Thor’s future college prospects, or spending literal hours on school rating websites and toggling back and forth between real estate listings trying to get into a home that would zone Thor into one of the three schools we had determined would be good for him, I wouldn’t even have been able to comprehend you.  I’d still have laughed at you, though, because that sounds ridiculous. 

Still, I’ve done that and more.  We love that kid, and we are committed to doing whatever we can to make his life better, and both of us agree that one of the most important tools we can give him is a good education, and we work to create the possibilities.  And we work hard (because it isn’t easy to juggle business hours and school hours) to be sure Thor can get back and forth to school safely, with good supervision, in healthy environments.

On May 17, 1954, Oliver Brown triumphed against backwards, ignorant, hateful thinking in his quest to get his daughter into a school that was 7 blocks from the family’s home, rather than having to make the First Grader walk 21 blocks to the segregated school slated for black children.

Linda Brown Thompson recalled the day her father tried to register her for school in their neighborhood:

. . . well. like I say, we lived in an integrated neighborhood and I had all of these playmates of different nationalities. And so when I found out that day that I might be able to go to their school, I was just thrilled, you know. And I remember walking over to Sumner school with my dad that day and going up the steps of the school and the school looked so big to a smaller child. And I remember going inside and my dad spoke with someone and then he went into the inner office with the principal and they left me out . . . to sit outside with the secretary. And while he was in the inner office, I could hear voices and hear his voice raised, you know, as the conversation went on. And then he immediately came out of the office, took me by the hand and we walked home from the school. I just couldn’t understand what was happening because I was so sure that I was going to go to school with Mona and Guinevere, Wanda, and all of my playmates.

I cannot imagine how livid I would have been, had I been told that regardless of how hard I had worked to position Thor into a particular school, he would not be allowed to attend.  I cannot imagine how angry, how sick, how heartbroken, or how helpless I would have felt.  And I certainly can’t imagine trying to tell Thor, “I’m sorry, Bud.  But you can’t go to school here because you aren’t the right color.”

I thank God for Oliver Brown and parents like him.  Parents who refuse to force their children into backseats, or to accept outdated social conventions, or to walk three-times-the-distance-to-school because some hateful, fearful so-and-so says so.  I thank God for parents who fight for their children to have opportunities, to go to prom, to participate in sports, to represent their schools, while recognizing that those rights belong to all children, that no child is better or worse, superior or inferior, good or bad based on the color of their skin, the origin of their birth, the bent of their sexuality, their gender.

Ruby Bridges walks to school.

Thank God for Oliver Brown, because six years later, another little girl would be entering school.  There was a school five blocks from her house, but she was slated to go to the segregated school many miles away.  Lucille Bridges prevailed in convincing her husband to allow their daughter, Ruby, to take the test being given to black children, which would determine whether or not they could go to the white school. Abon Bridges was afraid of what it would mean for Ruby and the Bridges family if she passed the test.  Lucille was certain that it would mean greater opportunity for her daughter, and she wanted her children to have more than the scraps “Separate but Equal” offered them.  Ruby took the test and passed. On November 14, 1960, in New Orleans, Louisiana, Ruby Bridges was escorted to school by federal marshalls, who were there to protect her from the ignorant, backwards, hateful, horrible adult men and women who protested the child’s right to an integrated education.  Amidst people gathered in front of the William Frantz school, yelling and throwing objects, Ruby climbed the stairs and walked the whole nation into a new era.  (And I have to ask, what the hell kind of people throw food and scream insults at a small child?) Thank God for parents like Lucille and Abon Bridges, who when Abon’s fears came true, stood their ground for their daughter’s rights.  Who, when Ruby’s life was threatened, still found a way to press forward.  Who struggled alongside their daughter emotionally and psychologically, and didn’t quit because of other people.  Who overcame the greatest adversity a parent can, fearing for the safety and health of your child, and who made the world a better place. Ruby had a horrible time that first year.  I’m sure the following years were not picnics either.

By Ruby’s second year at Frantz School it seemed everything had changed. Mrs. Henry’s [the teacher who had taught Ruby alone in a classroom, after every other teacher refused, and parents refused to have their children taught alongside Ruby] contract wasn’t renewed, and so she and her husband returned to Boston. There were also no more federal marshals; Ruby walked to school every day by herself. There were other students in her second grade class, and the school began to see full enrollment again. No one talked about the past year. It seemed everyone wanted to put the experience behind them.

40-plus years after Ruby Bridges’ tiny shoulders carried integration into the South, I wonder if I would be brave or strong enough to put such a burden onto Thor’s.  I don’t know.  If the only way to ensure that he had a shot at something more than what we have was to duke it out through a year of hell…  I don’t know.  I am pretty sure that Lucille Bridges is a better woman than I am.

That’s one of those things you don’t know until you get there.  Like how fiercely you can love a child (born, adopted, married into, however you come by the little guys), how deeply you want their happiness and success.  You don’t know how far you are willing to go until you’re faced with the need to get into a new place.

And I understand that those fools who were protesting that tiny girl, throwing food and shouting insults–some of them thought they were protecting their children.  But they were wrong.  And thank God there were other adults who knew it, and who kept fighting forward against ignorance.

The Ruby Bridges Foundation has a motto:  Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.

Every -ism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.  What is so painful is that our children are the only cure, and no one likes being poked by needles.

2 responses to “Oliver Brown, Lucille Bridges, and Me”

  1. “..some of them thought they were protecting their children”
    I don’t think there is ever an excuse to harm a small helpless child, whether it be emotionally, physically, or psychologically. Ruby wasn’t a threat to them in anything other than them really not wanting her to be educated there. Racism convinces people that they are right about their thoughts of people being less than, and I believe this was not a form of protecting their kids, but a form of frightening something they felt was less than their own. Frightening her into leaving, and not coming back. I agree, thankfully she and her parents had the courage to stand up to this. I cannot fathom living in the South during this tumoltuous time period.

  2. One of my favorite singer/songwriters has a song about Ruby’s walk to school… including a line “color is such an amazing illusion”…. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9qeYBnQMnA)

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