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The prayer of Ruby Bridges

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By David Whitlock

It’s too bad we don’t know the person’s name who said it, for there is much truth in the statement: “What man does not understand, he fears; and what he fears, he tends to destroy.”

Michael Dunn claimed fear was the reason he shot to death the young black man, Jordan Davis at a Jacksonville, Fla., gas station in an argument over loud music. Did Davis point a gun at Dunn, as he alleged? No gun was ever found.

Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., quipped that Dunn’s impulsive decision to shoot at the young men in the SUV may have been made in a kind of fear, a fear that is “the unspoken but clear recognition that black boys and men are our national boogeymen---they threaten by existing…”

While Pitts’ assessment is on target, fear extends beyond some whites’ apprehension of black boys and men. Our society is riveted with misunderstanding and distrust with the result that whether red or yellow, black or white, gay or straight, we fear each other.

We would do well to remember how little Ruby Bridges dealt with her fear back in 1960, when she was just six years old.

Because of her high test scores, Bridges was selected to attend an all-white school in New Orleans, LA.

When local authorities refused to provide protection for Ruby, President Eisenhower sent Federal Deputy Marshalls to escort her to school.

Years later in an interview with Charlayne Hunter-Gault on PBS NewsHour, Ruby described the first day she arrived at the school:

“Driving up I could see the crowd, but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.”

Only one person, Barbara Henry, agreed to teach Ruby. White parents boycotted and wouldn’t send their children to the school. So for an entire year, it was just Ms. Henry and Ruby, alone in the classroom.

And every day the Federal Marshalls would escort Ruby through the gauntlet of jeering people as she arrived at school. One parent repeatedly threatened to poison Ruby, so the Marshalls insisted that Ruby only eat food she brought from her home. Another lady would hold a small wooden casket with a black baby doll in it as Ruby passed by.

Dr. Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist who volunteered to provide weekly counseling for Bridges, was mystified as to how Ruby could apparently remain so well-adjusted throughout the harrowing ordeal.

Ruby’s equanimity was likely the result of something her mother taught her.

Her mother told Ruby that whenever she was afraid, she should pray: “If I’m not with you and you’re afraid, then always say your prayers.”

So each day on the way to school, Ruby would pray.

One day, Ms. Henry watched from her class window as the Federal Marshalls escorted Ruby through the taunting crowd. Then something out of the ordinary happened.

Ruby turned and appeared to be talking back to the people. When Ms. Henry asked Ruby what she had said, Ruby insisted she hadn’t said anything to them.

“But I saw you speaking,” Ms. Henry countered.

“I wasn’t talking to them,” Ruby explained. “I was praying for them.”
Ruby had been following her mother’s instructions, but that day she had forgotten to pray. So, on the steps of the school, Ruby turned to the people and prayed.

And what did she pray?

According to Dr. Robert Coles, Ruby’s prayer went like this:

Please God, try to forgive these people.

Because even if they say those bad things, they don’t know what they’re doing.

So You could forgive them, just like You did those folks a long time ago when they said terrible things about You.

Had Mr. Michael Dunn been half as brave as Ruby Bridges, he would not be facing the prospects of spending his remaining years behind bars, and Jordan Davis would still be alive.

Wouldn’t our world be a better place if we would all take heed and practice the simple yet profound  pray of Ruby Bridges?