By Dr. Joanne Noel
“It isn’t by your size that you win or fail.” Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke these words to a group of students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia in 1967, six months before he was assassinated. His words reverberate with the bravery of a pint size black girl from Louisiana who fueled the fight against segregation in the education system. For educational justice and inclusion, Ruby Bridges was in a class all by herself.
The social constructions of race borne out of the justification of the commodification of the bodies of blacks perpetuated the myth of the inferiority of blackness resulting in racism, violence and discriminated through Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow laws that continued to promote separation of races based on fallacious eugenics ideology viewed blackness as deficient. One result of that disparity in equality and equity was that schools were segregated. Later on, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown versus the Board of Education (1954) ended racial segregation in public schools. This meant that schools would be integrated, so black students had to be ‘bused’ to white schools in an effort to racially integrate white schools.
My first day at school was not like the first day for Ruby Bridges. I saw caring faces, crayons, and colors, but what greeted six year old Ruby at the all-white William Frantz elementary school in Louisiana on November 1960, were snarling faces and boiling hatred.
However, notwithstanding the fiery darts thrown against her, Ruby’s tenacity indicates that size is not a barometer for success but courage and consistency can impact culture and change oppressive systems. Ruby and her mother were escorted by four federal marshals to the school every day that year and for the whole year she was in a class all by herself. She showed up with the right attitude. Despite the cup of racial bitterness that protesters tried to force her to drink
every day, Ruby’s biographies point out that she refused to sip from that cup. She never retaliated in hate or anger but she, according to her teacher, always came ready to learn.
As we commemorate Black History Month, the stories of the experiences of Civil Rights activists and the actions and activities of that era are a rich repository demarcating the struggle and survival of many who paved the way for the flourishing of this generation and the generation to come. Ruby Bridges reminds us all that we can make a difference in our contexts and her story delineates the need for us to persist despite the barriers that are set to impede our progress and self-actualization. It reminds us that we do not have to drink from the poisonous cup of racism that is still present in many areas of our society and culture. We can choose to work in our contexts to dismantle systems of oppression, wherever we encounter them, from the school house, to the white house or the church house.
Finally, Ruby’s story reminds us that we ought to have what Civil Rights champion, Martin Luther King referred to as a “deep belief in our own dignity, worth and sombodiness.” At such a young age, her experience during the work to desegregate schools in the south shows that she was in a class all by herself.