Fifty-three years ago today, Ruby Bridges became the first black child to attend a white Southern elementary school. The following is a re-post of a piece I wrote a couple of years ago.
The above image is Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With” which graced the cover of Look magazine on January 14, 1964. It commemorates the story of Ruby Bridges who, at the age of 6, was the first African-American child to attend an all-white school in the South – an iconic moment in the history of a country which has struggled with racism for its entire existence.
As soon as Bridges got into the school, white parents went in and brought their own children out; all teachers refused to teach while a black child was enrolled. They hired Barbara Henry, from Boston, Massachusetts, to teach Bridges, and for over a year Mrs. Henry taught her alone, “as if she were teaching a whole class.” That first day, Bridges and her adult companions spent the entire day in the principal’s office; the chaos of the school prevented their moving to the classroom until the second day. Every morning, as Bridges walked to school, one woman would threaten to poison her; because of this, the U.S. Marshals dispatched by President Eisenhower, who were overseeing her safety, only allowed Ruby to eat food that she brought from home. Another woman at the school put a black baby doll in a wooden coffin and protested with it outside the school, a sight that Bridges Hall has said “scared me more than the nasty things people screamed at us.”
I write this because of a great post I read by Dennis G. over at Balloon Juice. Ruby Bridges met with President Obama this July to view the Rockwell painting which currently hangs on a wall just outside the Oval Office. The event moved Dennis to write the following:
There is something celebratory about Ruby Bridges standing next to our Nation’s first Black President and viewing a depiction of an ugly moment of her childhood that made her into a icon of courage for the ages.
And yet, there is a bit of sadness when one considers how far we still have to go to confront racism in America. For it is racism and the fear of losing white privilege that animates most of the Tea Party and—I would say—most of the irrational rage at all things Obama. Others will disagree (especially those suffering from Obama derangement syndrome), but nothing I have seen in the last three years has led me to question this view.
Racism is a fact of life for this President. It is just another thing to overcome. And something that can never be far from Barack Obama’s mind. Every time he walks to his desk he passes this image of courage in the face of hate and the word “Nigger” scrawled on the wall.
I’ll think about that the next time some dumb ass whines about how weak he is or how he doesn’t give a shit about progressive values.
I have no idea what a black President thinks of each and every day as he passes by a painting with the word nigger prominently displayed on it. Nor can we know the thoughts of the many visitors who see the painting as they walk the corridor leading up to the Oval Office. But whatever those thoughts might be, I suspect that Dennis G.’s comment can not be far off the mark. I’m reminded of an email I received on the night of Obama’s victory in 2009 from a white Southerner expressing dismay and wondering what it must have been like for Joe Biden, a white man, to have to hug and congratulate a black man who was now his boss. I could only shake my head at the racist remark as I hit the Delete key.
In the midst of an economic crisis and an opposition battling this president on every front, it’s easy for Americans to forget what it is Barack Obama has accomplished in becoming the first black President in U.S. history. He is the end result of Ruby Bridges’ walk on that day on November 14 1960. And while his skin color does not give this President a free pass (there’s an understatement), it does help put his presidency into perspective and is a reminder of much of what lies beneath the hate and distrust of Barack Obama.