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Under God

Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Bethany House
Released: October 2004
ISBN 0764200098

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Toby Mac



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In a Class of Only One: Ruby Bridges

By Toby Mac and Michael Tait – It was the morning of November 16, 1960. Two big, black limousines pulled up in front of the William T. Frantz Elementary school in New Orleans, where a large, angry crowd had gathered. Four husky U.S. federal marshals got out. Then, while sheltering her from the crowd with their own bodies, they helped a tiny black girl in a starched white dress get out of the car. Putting her carefully on the sidewalk, they turned her around, and with two marshals in front of her and two behind her, the procession climbed the steps and entered the school.

It was Ruby Bridges' third day at her new school. On the first day her mother, Lucille, had gone with Ruby and the federal marshals. The night before, she had told Ruby, "There might be a lot of people outside the school, but you don't need to be afraid. I'll be with you." Ruby saw the barricades and heard the people shouting but thought it was the Mardi Gras carnival that takes place in New Orleans every year.

That whole first day, Ruby and her mother sat behind the glass window of the principal's office and waited. No one spoke to them — but all day they watched as white parents came in and dragged their children out of the school. Finally it was three o'clock and time to go home. The crowd outside was even bigger and louder than it had been that morning, but the marshals helped them get through it safely.

That first afternoon Ruby taught a friend a chant she had learned: "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate." Neither of the little girls knew what the words meant, but they began to jump rope to it every day after school.

On the second day Ruby, her mother, and the marshals went to school again, marching together past the noisy, angry crowd. When they finally got into the building, Ruby's new teacher, Mrs. Henry, was there to greet them. Ruby noticed that the halls were quiet and asked if she was early, but Mrs. Henry said, "No, you are right on time." Ruby later learned that the white children were not coming to school that day.

Mrs. Henry escorted Ruby and her mother to a classroom on the second floor. There were lots of desks in the room but no other children. Ruby's mother took a seat in the back, Ruby took a seat up front, and Mrs. Henry started to teach Ruby the alphabet. Mrs. Henry was young and white, and Ruby was uneasy at first — she had never spent time with a white person before. She spent the whole day in the classroom with Mrs. Henry. She couldn't go to the cafeteria or outside for recess. Federal marshals sat outside the door, guarding and protecting them.

On the third morning Ruby's mother told her she couldn't go to school with her. She had to work and look after Ruby's brothers and sister. Ruby remembers her mother assuring her, "The marshals will take good care of you, Ruby Nell. And remember, if you get afraid, say your prayers. You can pray to God anytime, anywhere. He will always hear you."

One of the federal marshals, Charles Burks, remembers those days: "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."

Although the Supreme Court had outlawed school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in May 1954, the schools in the South had never complied with the new order. Finally, a federal judge decreed that Monday, November 14, 1960, would be the day black children in New Orleans would go to school with white children.

Six first graders were chosen to integrate the city's public school system. Three were assigned to McDonogh School No. 19. The two others assigned to Ruby's school decided to stay in their old segregated schools, so Ruby would be going to William T. Frantz alone. Ruby's family knew it would not be easy. They discussed it for weeks, they prayed about the decision, and in the end, they decided that despite the risks, they had to take this step forward, not just for their own children, but for all black children.

An article in the November 18, 1960, issue of U.S. News & World Report gave the following statistics: "On November 17, three Negro girls and one white child were the only pupils present at McDonogh School No. 19, which normally has 467 pupils. The other ‘integrated' Negro [Ruby] had the company of only three white children in William T. Franz School, which normally has 576 pupils." A few white families braved the protests and kept their children in school. Like Ruby, they had to walk through a mob of white people screaming obscenities, yelling threats, and waving their fists at them. But they weren't in Ruby's class, so she didn't see them.

The first few days of integration were tense. Militant segregationists did not just protest at the schools. They took to the streets in protest, and riots erupted all over the city. Whites assaulted blacks in broad daylight and the blacks fought back, even though the NAACP urged them not to. Extra police were called in. Finally, by the end of the week, the worst of the street riots were over.

Ruby's father, Abon, was fired from his service station job because customers were threatening to boycott the business if he remained there. But financial help was on the way. People from around the country who'd heard about Ruby on the news sent letters, gifts, and money. A neighbor gave Abon a job painting houses. Others baby-sat for the family and watched their house to keep away troublemakers. Ruby's family couldn't have made it without the help of their friends and neighbors.

Mrs. Henry tried to explain integration to Ruby and why some people were against it. "It's not easy for people to change once they have gotten used to living a certain way. Some of them don't know any better and they're afraid. But not everyone is like that."

Ruby now recalls: "Even though I was only six, I knew what she meant. The people I passed every morning as I walked up the school's steps were full of hate. They were white, but so was my teacher, who couldn't have been more different from them. She was one of the most loving people I had ever known. The greatest lesson I learned that year in Mrs. Henry's class was the lesson Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to teach us all: Never judge people by the color of their skin. God makes each of us unique in ways that go much deeper."

About this time, Dr. Robert Coles, a trained child psychiatrist who specialized in helping children under stress, offered to help Ruby and her family during the most stressful time in their lives. He was amazed to find that Ruby and her family were upheld and sustained by a very real and profound peace. Dr. Coles marveled at Ruby's ability to withstand this kind of treatment and wondered where she got her emotional strength. Every week he would come to Ruby's home to visit and draw with her, and then he would ask her about her drawings.

One day, Mrs. Henry, who always watched Ruby walk into the school, told Dr. Coles that Ruby had stopped and talked to the people in the street. When Dr. Coles asked Ruby about this, she said, "Oh, yes. I told her I wasn't talking to them. I was just saying a prayer for them."

Usually Ruby prayed in the car on the way to school, but that day she had forgotten until she was in the middle of the crowd. Her mother had taught her that every time she felt afraid she should pray. With childlike obedience, when Ruby felt afraid that morning, she stopped right where she was and said a prayer.

Dr. Coles was amazed that Ruby would pray for people who were so hateful to her. He asked her, "Ruby, you pray for the people there?"

"Oh, yes."

"Why do you do that?"

"Because they need praying for," Ruby replied.

"Ruby, why do you think they need you to pray for them?"

"Because I should."

Ruby's mother heard this exchange and explained, "We tell Ruby that it's important that she pray for the people."

Dr. Coles asked Ruby what she prayed.

Ruby answered, "I pray for me, that I would be strong and not afraid. I pray for my enemies, that God would forgive them.

"Jesus prayed that on the cross," she told Coles, as if that settled the matter. "Forgive them, because they don't know what they're doing."

For the rest of the year, Mrs. Henry stubbornly taught her class of one. Mrs. Henry said, "I grew to love Ruby and to be awed by her. It was an ugly world outside. . . . Neither of us ever missed a single day of school that year. It was important to keep going."

Sometime in the spring, Mrs. Henry was stunned to find out four other first graders had been coming to the school for a while. She immediately told the principal she wanted Ruby and the other first graders to be together, as it was cruel to keep Ruby by herself for so long. She said, "By law, you have to integrate this school. Integration means putting black and white children in the same classroom. As I see it, you are breaking the law by keeping them separate." The principal would not force the other first grade teacher to include Ruby in her class. Instead, the white children came into Mrs. Henry's classroom for part of each day. Mrs. Henry said, "It was progress." It was from these children that Ruby finally learned about racism and integration.

I had picked up bits and pieces over the months from being around adults and hearing them talk, but nothing was clear to me. The light dawned one day when a little white boy refused to play with me.

‘I can't play with you,' the boy said. ‘My mama said not to because you're a n——r.'

At that moment, it all made sense to me. I finally realized that everything had happened because I was black. I remember feeling a little stunned. It was all about the color of my skin.

I wasn't angry at the boy, because I understood. His mother had told him not to play with me, and he was obeying her. I would have done the same thing. If my mama said not to do something, I didn't do it.

By late spring the crowd outside dwindled to just a few protestors. Instead of the federal marshals, a taxi driver was sent to pick Ruby up every morning. Before she knew it, it was June.

When Ruby went back to school in September, everything was different: There were no marshals, no protestors. There were other kids—even some other black students—in her second-grade class. It was odd, but it was almost as if that first year of school integration had never happened. No one talked about it. Everyone seemed to have put that difficult time behind them.


Today Ruby Bridges lives in New Orleans with her husband, Malcolm Hall, and four sons. In the early 1990s, Ruby volunteered to work at the same William Franz Elementary School she had "integrated" as a child. It had since become an inner-city school with mostly African-American students—so the children were segregated once again. Eventually, Ruby established the Ruby Bridges Foundation to help schools succeed.

Ruby often speaks to audiences across the U.S., telling them that every child is a unique human being fashioned by God, and that schools can be a place to bring kids together from all races and backgrounds:

If kids of different races are to grow up to live and work together in harmony, then they are going to have to begin at the beginning—in school together. People are touched by the story of the black child who was so alone. . . . In all of this, I feel my part is just to trust in the Lord and step out of the way. For many years, I wasn't ready to be who I am today, but I've always tried not to lose my faith. Now I feel I'm being led by just that—faith... I don't know where events will go from here, but I feel carried along by something bigger than I am.

Ruby had been called by her country to perform an act of profound bravery, to become the [only] black child in an all-white school. By her simple act of courage, Ruby moved the hearts and opened the minds of millions of people. — A CIVIL RIGHTS WORKER

There is no easy way to create a world where men and women can live together, where each has his own job and house and where all children receive as much education as their minds can absorb. But if such a world is created in our lifetime, it will be done in the United States by Negroes and white people of good will. It will be accomplished by persons who have the courage to put an end to suffering by willingly suffering themselves rather than inflict suffering upon others. It will be done by rejecting the racism, materialism, and violence that has characterized Western civilization and especially by working toward a world of brotherhood, cooperation, and peace. — DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.

Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it. —RUBY BRIDGES

The Road to Desegregation

The Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 did not abolish segregation in all public areas, such as restaurants and rest rooms, nor did it require desegregation of public schools by a specific time. It did, however, declare the segregation that existed in twenty-one states unconstitutional. While the Brown v. Board case was a giant step toward complete desegregation of public schools, even partial desegregation was still very far away.

By 1957 Little Rock, Arkansas, had already desegregated its public buses, the zoo, the library, and the park systems. Working toward the desegregation of the entire city, the Little Rock school board had made plans to integrate the high school that year, followed by the junior high the next year, and the elementary schools in the following year. It seemed the process would go smoothly, since seven of Arkansas' eight state universities had desegregated, a law school had been integrated since 1949, and blacks had been appointed to state boards and elected to local offices. But a smooth transition of integration for the state's school system was not to be.

On September 3, when nine black students arrived at Little Rock Central High School, a group of National Guard members turned them away, a direct order from Arkansas governor Orval Faubus in an effort to protect citizens and property from the violence of protestors. The Guard was withdrawn a few weeks later, and on September 23, the nine black students were quietly ushered in a side door of the school building while a mob of a thousand people waited outside the front of the school. When the mob learned that the students had entered the school, shouts of challenges and threats forced the fearful police to remove the students from the school. Two days later the nine black students reentered the school under the protection of one thousand members of the United States Army.

The year that followed was intense for Little Rock Central High School. Most of the students, faculty, and administration not only accepted desegregation as the law but also accepted the black students among the white. Although the black students suffered physical and verbal assaults, commencement ceremonies in May successfully graduated Ernest Green, the school's first black graduate.


Excerpted from:
Under God by Toby Mac and Michael Tait (with WallBuilders)
Copyright © 2004; ISBN 0764200098
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.


For more information on this book, visit the Under God Web site.

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