BY CLINT LOVEALL - FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF SPIRIT LAKE
I recently read the remarkable story of Ruby Bridges who, as a 6-year-old girl in 1960, became the first African American child to integrate into the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Looking back, it was an almost unimaginable situation. Picture a 6-year-old girl being escorted by police and “friendly” adults while hundreds of other adults shouted, spit, threw things, yelled death threats and slung the vilest racial slurs. It seems cruel and woefully misguided now, but that’s the exact situation Ruby was in.
Not surprisingly, the early days did not go well. The first day she arrived to find she was the only student at school. Other parents refused to send their children to school and only one teacher, a woman named Barbara Henry, agreed to teach Ruby and did so in an empty classroom. Because of threats made to poison her, Ruby only ate food she brought with her. Every morning Ruby, escorted by federal marshals, had to walk through an angry crowd of protestors to enter the building.
Because of the stressful circumstances, Ruby saw a counselor named Robert Coles, who volunteered to help her process the experiences she was enduring. They met weekly seeking to build her coping skills for the stress she was experiencing. Coles later wrote a book about his time with Ruby. Her courage and poise stand out as incredible, and one story in particular seems especially profound.
On one of the early days of walking to school, Mrs. Henry noticed that Ruby was apparently talking to herself, or to those who were screaming at her. She paused in front of a group of protestors and Mrs. Henry could see her lips moving as she looked toward them. When they got into the classroom, the teacher asked Ruby about it and she responded by saying, “I wasn’t talking to them, I was praying for them.” Ruby would later write that her parents, neither of whom could read or write, taught her that Jesus told us to pray for our enemies, so that was what she had been trying to do. I wonder how many of us would be able to do the same.
Ruby’s story is amazing, and well worth reading. She continued to serve as an activist and lent her voice to racial equality and civil rights causes. She was the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting, and in 2001 was awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Medal by President Clinton. However, there is a lesser known footnote to her story that is also interesting.
There was only one other student who completed the entire year at William Frantz Elementary in 1960. In fact at one point the school enrollment, previously 1,000, dropped to three. One of those three was a young girl named Pam Foreman, a 5-year-old white student who joined Ruby and also endured those difficult walks through crowds of disapproving critics. Pam’s father, Rev. Lloyd Anderson Foreman, a Methodist pastor, walked Pam through the lines of protestors on the second day of the boycott saying that he just wanted his daughter to be able to attend school. For his efforts he was despised by many and insulted long into his life by some within the community.
Two children, one black and one white, forced to endure the hatred of complete strangers for no other reason than skin color or going to school. Two families, who had to make incredibly difficult decisions about what was right and took a stand for what they believed. One remarkable little girl who lived out Jesus’ words to pray for those who curse you, and one pastor who literally stepped out in faith and by doing so served as a living example of following Christ. Each of them, in their own way, becoming a witness and an example. Both of them showing us a glimpse of the grace and strength we find in our Savior.
By the mercy of God, may we do the same. Blessings.