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Ruby Bridges, part 1: a faith based story from the Story Powerline
Tuesday, June 2, 2020 by Becky Cerling Powers

It never occurred to psychiatrist Robert Coles that a poor, black 6-year-old like Ruby Bridges might know more about coping effectively with stress than he did. When he watched her, flanked by burly federal marshals, pass through a shouting mob on her way to and from school each day, he assumed that she needed psychological help and that he could give it to her.

It was the fall of 1960. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that public schools must allow black and white students to attend classes together, instead of segregating them as they were doing. Six years later, a federal judge pressured schools in New Orleans to follow the new rules and allow black students to attend the formerly all-white schools.

So 6-year-old Ruby Bridges started classes at William T. Frantz School, and the neighborhood erupted in angry demonstrations. All the other parents boycotted the school, refusing to allow their children to attend.

Every day, Ruby attended class all by herself. And every day a mob gathered outside the school, screaming curses, spitting at the little girl, shaking their fists, and threatening to kill her. The local police refused to protect her, so the federal government provided marshals to escort Ruby to and from class every day.

Robert Coles had studied stress in children who had polio at the Children’s Hospital in Boston. He had presented a paper with his conclusions to the American Psychiatric Association. When Coles saw Ruby’s daily ordeal, he wanted to study her response to stress, too. He thought he could write another paper and possibly do a good deed as well, helping her cope.

Coles contacted Ruby’s parents through the NAACP and started visiting her family twice a week, looking for symptoms of turmoil. But Ruby seemed to be sleeping fine, her appetite was normal, and she played well with friends in the neighborhood when she came home from school.

Ruby’s first grade teacher said the little girl didn’t seem upset at school either. “I don’t understand this child,” she said. “Ruby seems so happy. She comes here so cheerfully.”

“Well, I’m a little puzzled myself,” Coles said, “but I think that sometimes people under tremendous stress gird themselves mightily , and it can take time to find out just how upset they are.”

His explanation seemed less and less convincing, though, when he watched the way Ruby and her parents carried on as the weeks and months passed.

“Here was a girl who was six years old,” Coles wrote later, “whose parents were extremely poor, were illiterate so that they did not even know how to sign their names. They were going through tremendous strain, day after day, and they did not seem to be complaining, parents or child.

“What a contrast with the well-to-do middle-class people I had seen in Boston whose children, for one reason or another – all of them white, by the way – were having all sorts of difficulties. Now, how do you explain that? I would ask myself. And I did not know how to explain that.”

Today’s prayer

“Oh Lord, I need what Ruby and her parents had. Please help me to take hold of it and absorb it into my own life. Amen.”

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