Ruby Bridges was just 6 years old with a white ribbon in her hair when deputy U.S. Marshals escorted her into a New Orleans classroom. She was there in 1960 to integrate an all-white school. Outside, protesters hurled racism and rancor. Ruby wanted to be brave. She didn’t cry. Parents of many of the other students refused to let their kids attend first grade with a Black girl, so Ruby spent the year in a classroom alone with her teacher. One woman greeted Ruby with a Black doll lying in a black coffin. Despite it all, Ruby endured.
It’s the type of heroism that movies are made of, and Disney did just that, producing “Ruby Bridges” in 1998. Now, Pinellas school officials have banned students from watching the film at a St. Petersburg school after a parent complained that the story might teach kids that white people hate Black people. It’s embarrassing that anyone would be so threatened by the story of a young girl who helped integrate a school. When did we become so fragile?
For years, the school district has shown “Ruby Bridges” in classrooms, often during Black History Month in February. The story is relatable to so many elementary students. Ruby is young like them. Ruby has doubts like them. Ruby just wants to be a little kid like them. She shows children — all children — the power of perseverance, how at times life is hard, really hard, but that they can get through it. And her story is real. Her part in integrating schools is a key part of this nation’s civil rights struggle. It is history worth teaching, examining and absorbing. The feelings it conjures should be addressed, not suppressed. Have we not learned that yet?
The North Shore Elementary parent at the center of this sorry episode did not allow her child to watch the film. That’s her right. But she also complained that the film was inappropriate for any second graders. In her formal challenge, she argued the racial slurs and scenes of white people threatening Ruby could leave the impression that white people hate Black people. School officials did what they do these days — they quickly caved — allowing a single complaint from a too easily offended parent to alter curriculum for everyone else.
We’ve recently seen similar bans of “controversial” books, often based on feeble complaints from a small but vocal group of people about sexually explicit passages or acts of violence in some of the nation’s classic novels. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republicans in the state Legislature set this dangerous stage with their push for more “parental rights” and their misguided and often ill-defined notions of increasing freedom. They write vague rules that sow confusion, and then threaten to crush anyone who steps over their fuzzy lines. History will not look fondly upon these fear mongers. Still, the chill is palpable, and it’s hard to blame school officials for assuming a defensive crouch. Who wants to stick their head up in this political climate?
But like Ruby, educators must be brave. “Erring on the side of caution” is not a defense for educational malpractice. Pinellas County School Superintendent Kevin Hendrick should immediately end the “Ruby Bridges” ban at North Shore Elementary, all seven Pinellas School Board members should publicly support him, and parents all across the district should tell anyone who will listen that they agree with the move. Ending segregation in our schools was the right thing to do. So is ensuring that elementary school students get to learn that it happened with help from a 6-year-old girl with a white ribbon in her hair.
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