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07 October 2020

Profile: Ruby Bridges

Black History Month 2020
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Ruby Bridges

This week our theme is courage; a single act of courage can make a huge difference. This is the story of Ruby Bridges.

In November 1960, at the age of six, Ruby Bridges unwittingly advanced the cause of civil rights in the USA. She became the first African American student to integrate at an elementary school in New Orleans, Louisiana. Racial segregation in public schools was ended in 1954 by a US supreme Court ruling, but southern states had continued to resist.

Federal marshals escorted Ruby into William Frantz Elementary School on the 14th November to protect her from the gathered mobs who were shouting and throwing objects at her. One of those marshals, Charles Burke, recalled Bridges’ courage in the face of such intense hatred, saying ‘For a little girl six years old going into a strange school with four strange deputy marshals, a place she had never been before, she showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier. We were all very proud of her.’

The school was devoid of children, as Ruby found when she entered. Parents had removed their children from classes because of Ruby’s presence. And it wasn’t just the parents that had taken issue, there was only a single teacher willing to teach Ruby, Barbara Henry, who herself had only recently moved to New Orleans from Boston. Ruby was taught on her own for the entirety of her first year at school as all the white parents refused to allow their children to share a classroom with a black child.

Ruby’s family was targeted with threats. Her father was fired from his job because of his role in ending segregation in the school and her grandparents were evicted from the farm they’d lived at for over 25 years. In the face of all of this, Ruby resisted the pressure and continued to attend school. As a result of her efforts, the following year she was joined by other African American students. Ruby’s courage, strength and resilience ended segregation and, in the process, she became a civil rights icon.

A lifelong activist for racial equality, in 1999, Ruby established The Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and create change through education. In 2000, she was made an honorary deputy marshal in a ceremony in Washington, DC.

In 2010, Ruby joined others in marking the 50th reunion at William Frantz Elementary with the first white child to break the boycott at the school, Pam Foreman Testroet. And on the 15th July 2011, Ruby met with President Barack Obama at the White House. And while viewing the Norman Rockwell painting of her on display he told her, “I think it’s fair to say that if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here, and we wouldn’t be looking at this together”.

Why is this important to us in 2020?

Although racial segregation in the USA ended a long time ago, there remains stark differences in educational experiences of non-white pupils. For example, in the UK the Timpson review recognised that black children are 1.7 times more likely to be excluded from schools (higher than any other ethnic minority group). And a report by the Independent in January 2020 shows that black students are disproportionately targeted for behaviours and compliance with uniform policies.

These differences don’t just occur in the education system, they also continue into employment. In 2016, a survey by the Royal College of Midwives found that Black midwives were three times more likely to be disciplined, and they were also more likely to be suspended or dismissed. And in 2017, the McGregor-Smith review found that those from Black or Minority Ethnic (BME) groups were more likely to be disciplined or judged harshly — and less likely to apply for or be given promotions.

The reports highlight that the biases felt by those from a BME background is not unconscious, it’s structural. And structural biases don’t just impact people from the BME community — they also affect women, those with disabilities and those from the LGBT+ community. Fixing this requires critical examination of processes and opportunities.

That brings me back to the theme for the week, courage. To tackle racial discrimination, we need to find the courage to stand up and challenge overt and subconscious mistreatment. If we are witness to incidents, we need to find our voices and not be mere bystanders. We must stand united with those under attack. We can use any privileged position we hold to educate and to lend our support to those on the receiving end. And we need to focus discussions against those who argue that racism doesn’t exist, or that by having the conversation about racism that white people are being discriminated against. We need to call this what it is — ‘rage’ (which arises whenever one group of people feel — no matter how misplaced those feelings might be — that their rights or chances in life are being diminished).

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