Ruby Bridges: Grit, A Dream Deferred, and the Destruction of New Orleans Public Schools

On the 54th anniversary of Ruby Bridge’s courageous and lonely walk that led the charge in desegregating New Orleans’ public schools, I want to pause and say a heartfelt thank you to one of America’s heros.  In 1960, little Ruby’s parents heeded the call of the NAACP for families who wished to exercise their right to send their children to the school of their choice and break the color barrier in New Orleans’ public schools.  Day after day, Ruby walked the gauntlet to William Franz Elementary School amidst white racist protesters shouting racial epithets at her, one woman even placing a black doll in a miniature coffin for the brave little girl to see.  As a result, President Eisenhower sent U.S. Marshals to accompany Ruby to school and keep her safe.  This action helped Ruby to persevere.  She never gave up and today speaks of the success of her efforts.

Cain Burdeau spoke with Ruby Bridges and provides an excellent commentary (http://www.berkshireeagle.com/news/ci_26936821/ruby-bridges-us-divided-by-race-again?source=rss). According to Bridges, “… white students returned to William Frantz and the school became integrated … she went to integrated middle and high schools in New Orleans. Fast forward to today: The school now occupying the William Frantz building is 97 percent black, according to school data.”

Education policy makers are enamored with the idea of “grit” as the factor that will help low income and/or low achieving students to overcome the structural factors that inhibit academic achievement.  They laud perseverance, self-control, and the ability to embrace challenges.  Grit has become a research agenda in education and scales have been developed to measure “grittiness.”  I suggest that if you want a model of grittiness in a young child, look to Ruby Bridges.  Of course, the power of her grit was not used to document a standardized test score.  Rather, her grit sparked a social movement and resulted in the fruition of a dream that Dr. Martin Luther King would eloquently speak about almost three years later in August, 1963, when he said “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”  For a short period of time and in some schools, and although not seamlessly, that dream was realized in New Orleans.

The dream did not last very long in New Orleans, however.  In the decades following Ruby Bridges’ lonely walk, the dream was sadly deferred.  Education policy discussions no longer focused on the impact of poverty, racism, and equity.  We will never know what the educational achievement of our public schools would have been if we’d kept the dream of integrated schools alive in the U.S.   Efforts to ameliorate the impact of poverty on educational attainment begun during the Johnson administration were never fully realized.  I am reminded of the Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred.”

A Dream Deferred

by Langston Hughes

 

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

As the War on Poverty initiatives were steadily defunded, the dream dried up in cities like New Orleans.  Segregated schools slowly but surely once more became the norm.  And the problems festered.  Poverty’s grip on the city placed a stranglehold on its schools and, not surprisingly, students’ educational achievement suffered.  It’s a story that repeated itself across the country in large urban areas.  Jonathan Kozol wrote extensively about the problems of schools like those in New Orleans and urged America to right the wrongs associated with schools trying to survive in desolate, crime ridden neighborhoods with shrinking tax bases and funds in which students, predominantly of color, were increasingly isolated.

In the headlong rush to demonstrate that America’s public schools were a failure and to systemically reform our public school system through free market principles and efforts to privatize education, New Orleans and other urban areas in the U.S. would become ensnared in the corporatization of public schools.  The syrupy sweet public relations campaign surrounding the charter school movement would provide the propaganda needed to further efforts to dismantle the public schools in these cities and divert efforts to reform the schools by addressing poverty, racism, and other structural factors at the heart of educational disparities.

And then the dream exploded in Ruby Bridges’ own home town, New Orleans.  Hurricane Katrina hit the city square on, bringing death and destruction and leaving families displaced.  Friedmanomic free market coporate reformers grasped at the opportunity to totally remake New Orleans’ public school system and privatize education.  Teachers were fired en masse and public schools were closed and re-opened as charter schools.  As Kristen Buras explains in Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance, “Time and again in New Orleans, charters would be given funding and facilities in what amounts to an educational land grab premised on historical erasure and the racial-spatial redistribution of resources.”

There are no traditional public schools in New Orleans any more.  They are all gone.  The school Ruby Bridges’ attended, William Franz Elementary — a historical landmark — does not even bear its own name.  It was taken over by the charter school management group Crescent City Schools and renamed Aliki Academy.  I am left to wonder why the legacy of Ruby Bridges’ efforts was not important enough to preserve the name of the school that has such an important part in history?  It seems that the name of Ruby Bridges’ school is being erased from history in New Orleans.  Is this part of the erasure that Buras talks about?