Fifty Years Ago


Above is the scene outside Frantz Elementary School in the Bywater neighborhood in New Orleans in 1960.It’s now a hipster haven but back then Bywater was a hard scrabble working class area and it was where the battle over NOLA school integration was waged fifty years ago this week.

Representatives of Tulane University approached the Orleans Parish School Board about using a school near Tulane’s Uptown campus as the inaugural site. They were rejected. Why? The Tulanians (bless their hearts) wanted desegregation to succeed and the OPSB wanted it to fail.Here’s how Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry describes the scene:

That’s what’s so impressive — and bewildering — about the parents of Ruby Bridges, Gail Etienne, Pam Foreman, Yolanda Gabrielle, Tessie Prevost and Leona Tate. Fifty years ago this week, they sent their babies — five first-graders and a kindergartner — to William Frantz Elementary and McDonogh No. 19 through a gauntlet of spewing and sputtering segregationists so committed to their backwardness that they assembled to yell obscenities at small children.

Ruby Bridges, for example, taught one of her playmates a new chant she’d heard, and the girls jumped rope to it: “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.”

Nobody would have blamed the girls’ parents if they’d decided to protect their children from such hate-filled madness. Good people would have understood if the parents succumbed to a loving impulse to cover the girls’ eyes and ears and remove them from a campus where so many bigots had gathered to yell at them. Nobody would have blamed them. Which makes their decisions all the more worthy of praise. They didn’t have to buck against the status quo. They didn’t have to offer their children up for the integration experiment. But they did.

Thinking about what happened here in New Orleans fifty years ago shows us both how much and how little things have changed. We no longer have howling mobs of people screaming obscenities at children for the crime of being “the other” but we still have howling mobs of people denouncing people for being Muslim and calling the first African-American President a Nazi/Marxist/Grandma killer.

Eventually, of course, the mobs dispersed but white flight from OPSB schools accelerated. Since I usually beat up on the current hierarchy of the Catholic Church, I have to give some credit to thenArchbishop Joseph Francis Rummel for his role in both calming the situation and shaming the protesters. Rummel, who I once heard described by a priest as a “big German dude,” denounced the protests, supported integration and declared that racism was a mortal sin. Hence the sign in the picture at the top. Rummel also put his money where his mouth was by intergrating the diocese and parochial schools. A brave man in a time of cowardice and bigotry.
I’ll let Jarvis DeBerry have the last word. He’s a closer, y’all:

Children seemed to always be on the front lines in our country’s often bloody battle for civil rights. Not all of them wanted to be. The 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Miss., shocked the national conscience, and months later, Rosa Parks was refusing to budge from her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. In September 1963, four little girls in Sunday School at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church died when the Ku Klux Klan attacked their church with dynamite. The next year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

And in 1960, six little girls in New Orleans — four black, two white — were sent by their parents into a hate-filled mob. What a heart-wrenching decision that must have been.

What a sad place this would be if they hadn’t made it.

9 thoughts on “Fifty Years Ago

  1. Jarvis musta been sending me espn signals. From my FB posts this month:
    2010-11-9 Grateful #17 I am grateful for Ruby Bridge’s mama, Constance McMillen’s mama & all the mamas who let their children be flashpoints change.

  2. Know what you’re saying Spocko but Rummel does deserve credit for doing what he did. I’m sure he was not a friend to gays but he did the right thing here. That’s why I prefaced the passage with the bit about my usually bashing the Catholic Church.

  3. Great post. I think it’s by far the most effective argument against the hysterical opposition to gay marriage. This is what that opposition will look like in hindsight.

  4. Bigotry and cowardice are never ending, and we only grow as a people, and as a society, when people of courage stand up to change things for the better.

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