Children: Let Them Amaze You
At School with Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges
There’s an elementary school in Berkeley, California where any visitor would notice a remarkable scene on the playground on any given day: a colorful array of children of all backgrounds playing together peacefully. This has been observed on many levels from federal representatives of the Department of Education to local volunteers to neighborhood passers-by. In fact, I have a friend who volunteers at this school and she told me, “I love volunteering at this elementary school. When I walk through the gates, I enter a great community where everyone works together so beautifully. It feels like peace.”
This exemplary school is named after Rosa Parks. Each morning the children recite the Rosa Parks Pledge: “I believe we are here on the planet Earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom.” The principal remarked in a presentation I attended, “When such a strong message is repeated daily, the students take it to heart.”
Berkeley Public Schools were the first in the nation to voluntarily desegregate. To this day, the intentional mixing of the student population has maintained a deep level of diversity in every school, allowing the students to benefit from a culturally rich environment. Other school districts in America are unfortunately trending toward segregation.
Rosa Parks did her part as an adult to build a path for racial harmony in America. Ruby Bridges set an example as a child to promote equality in education and uphold the original words of our founding fathers who believed in the inherent rights for all people to pursue their greatest potential and thereby produce a stronger democracy, one that could show the world the benefits of embracing diversity.
On November 14, 1960, a diminutive black girl, only six-years-old, walked up the steps of William Frantz School in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. She was escorted by four white U.S. Marshals who were tasked with protecting her from the violence of the white protestors. America had passed a law to desegregate its schools. Ruby Bridges bravely enacted that law.
This past November 14th, a statue was installed in the courtyard of the school to mark this point in our nation's history. Ruby Bridges, who tours the country often lecturing on the need for greater educational equality, spoke at the ceremony. Here is an excerpt from the Washington Times, November 14, 2014:
Bridges said racism remains painfully real today. She pointed to the tense events in Ferguson, Missouri, after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, revelations about racist comments made by owners in the National Basketball Association and how so many American schools have failed to become racially mixed.
Back in 1960, Bridges, flanked by U.S. marshals, had to walk past a mob of jeering segregationist protesters and Confederate flags to enter her school. One woman shouted threats to poison her. Another woman showed up at protests with a coffin with a black baby doll in it. All the white students at the school were pulled from classes and teachers quit -- leaving Bridges as the school's only student.
Bridges said racism was a problem before President Barack Obama's election but that his presidency has fueled racism. "Race is a very hot topic right now," she said.
She looks at her own experiences as evidence of a new segregation. For example, white students returned to William Frantz and the school became integrated, she said. She added that 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.
In New Orleans, after integration, whites generally sent their children to private or parochial schools -- and that preference continues today. Blacks today make up 86 percent of the public school enrollment, according to 2013 data from the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University.
She called demographic shifts since Hurricane Katrina -- whites now make up a higher percentage of the city than before the 2005 flooding of the city -- as evidence of gentrification rather than integration of schools and neighborhoods. She wondered why lawmakers and school officials can't do more to make schools more racially mixed.
"How did we integrate schools back in the 1960s? If those people did it back then, I can't understand why we can't do it today for the betterment of a community or for a society."
She said the key to a more integrated society lies with children.
"Kids really don't care about what their friends look like. Kids come into the world with clean hearts, fresh starts," she said. "If we are going to get through our differences, it's going to come through them."
So true. The children at Rosa Parks Elementary in Berkeley are off to a good start. We adults could learn a thing or two from hanging around the playground.