Monday, May 18, 2009

Day 110/365 Bookends

Ruby Bridges and The Federal Marshals, New Orleans Public Schools,1960

What are the chances that “bookend” historical events would occur almost on exactly the same day, albeit 58 years apart?

One of the defining aspects of my childhood, or of the childhood of anyone growing up in the South prior to the 1970’s ,was segregation. Every child went to either a white school or a “colored” school. Speaking for myself, as a white child, this was not something you protested or more than gave a passing thought to. Children were not encouraged to voice their opinions about societal rules, and a result, didn’t pay much attention, something that was easier I imagine for the kids going to the bigger, nicer school.

On May 18, 1896, twenty years more or less after the official end of Reconstruction, the last blow against any civilized melding of southern society was struck by the U.S. Supreme Court when it endorsed “separate but equal” racial segregation in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson.

If the South had been forced at that point by law to integrate black and white advantages and disadvantages, it would have saved at least another half-century of decline in the South, never mind countless acts of violence, and wasted human potential lost in poverty and racial neglect.

There would have been less of a need, if any, for the Civil Rights movement, less of a chance for the Sixties race riots, and no need for Affirmative Action Program, no need for the March on Selma or Birmingham Bombings.

Our society would have “bit the bullet” so to speak back in 1896 (still thirty years too late, since personally I think if the North went to all the trouble of the Civil War, they should have finished the job of reconstructing Southern society, instead of walking away and leaving a job half-finished).

Instead both black and white floundered around for another 58 years, until May 17, 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court redeemed itself with Brown vs. Topeka, striking down “separate but equal” segregated education forever.

Even then it took years for the law to actually be enforced.

This is the reason I found myself in 1960, six years after Brown vs. Topeka, sitting in an all-white class of first graders, wearing a dress almost exactly like Ruby Bridges', with the same white socks and same patent leather shoes.

Three years later, in 1963, when desegregation was finally enforced in Louisiana during the middle of my third grade school year, I found myself sitting in a classroom of empty desks. That particular morning less than half the class showed up. Panicked parents had pulled their children out of the about-to-be-integrated public classrooms, and sent them off to private schools, in most cases churches hurriedly turned into supposed schools.

For all of you who jumped the gun, I’d like to inform you that it was another four years before I ever saw a black child at any school I attended. And that was in Iowa.

That day the world did not end. Life as we knew it did not cease to exist. The written lessons were taught, homework was assigned, and children of all colors complained about it.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to get it over with back in 1896, without all the drama?

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