God bless America, Land that I love
Stand beside her And guide her
through the night with a light from above–
from the mountains to the prairies
to the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home.
My friend Laura shared a link on her facebook page that led to a copy of the photo above, and a small paragraph about Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old girl who was the first student to participate in the integration of the New Orleans, Louisiana School system. If you’re anything like me, you learned her name for a few moments in school–maybe not even her name, only glancing at the iconic photograph, recognizing that integration happened, and moving on.
What stuck with me–not her name, sadly–was that while several students volunteered, passed the requisite tests, and were permitted to transfer to the then all-white school, Ms. Bridges was the only one who actually went. I recall thinking, they let her go alone. Of course, she had the federal marshals to protect her–a six year old girl!–from the angry crowds, but what company is a marshal to a little girl? She would later say that she thought the crowds at the school were gathered there to celebrate mardi gras!
And what about these bitter, angry, terrified southern housewives and mothers who–I guess–in some unfathomable, deeply misguided, ignorant way looked at the arrival of this small child as the destruction of their good, Christian way of life? (note the chubby blond kid has a sign that says “All I want for Christmas is clean, white schools”–ironic, isn’t it, that the arrival of a small child–just before the holiday season–could throw everyone into such a tizzy?) Did they grow to understand they were on the wrong side of history, did they pray to their god for forgiveness of their hate and cruelty? Or did they live out their lives, poisoned by spite and fear, huddled in their shacks and mobile homes? Note the placard held by one of these pleasant ladies above–“states rights”–and its relevancy today; the Teabag Party is still using the same strategy to cloak their own angry, bile-soaked agendas.
The ignorant masses didn’t just reserve their spite for the black kids, mind you–white families who sent their children to school were harassed mercilessly as well, harangued as traitors and “communists”–a word the lunatic fringe still uses today to describe their adversaries, though I’ve convinced there isn’t a single one of them the actually knows what the word truly means–they employ it as a convenient catch-all, a synonym for “bad.”
The thing that sticks with me about this story–and the many more like it–is that apart from all the tales of individual and small group heroics–from little Rosa Parks to the Kennedys, from determined, defiant black sharecroppers demanding their right to vote to the young, ivory tower idealist freedom riders who joined them in risking their lives in a struggle to make this country what was meant to be, not what the smallest among us would have it be–the fight is so long, so drawn out, so utterly ridiculous. More than 50 years has passed since Ruby Bridges took that walk, and our nation still bears racism like a cross on our shoulders. And heck, we’re all about building a giant wall to keep out the tired, the poor,
the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, not to mention the wretched refuse of teeming shores, the homeless, tempest-tost…and so on. And then there is discrimination against folks whose definitions of love and attraction lie in the swift waters and eddies outside the mainstream persist, our squinting suspiciously at a world full of people whose skins come in countless shades of brown–as if every one of them has a bomb in his underwear.
Imagine what we could accomplish if that energy was directed elsewhere, at genuine problems, instead of all this static. The thing is: I can’t. I can’t imagine that better world, and doesn’t that just suck?