Ruby Bridges and the Sermon on the Mount

With February slipping away I felt I needed to take some time out of my busy weekend to celebrate Black History month! There are so many facets of our American history that horrify us–slavery, racial violence, segregation, etc.–and this month is certainly a wonderful opportunity for us to reassess how well we (as a nation and as individuals) are rising above our past. However, it is also important for us to take a moment and appreciate the contributions of the African American community.

I decided how I was going to celebrate Black History month while I was sitting at mass today. Today’s Gospel, taken from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, expresses some radical ideas: turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, and praying for those who persecute you. This sermon has inspired many influential advocates of nonviolent approaches to peace, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. These words are beautiful and moving, but often difficult to implement. During my own reflection of this Gospel today I kept thinking about a little African American girl who exemplified this teaching: Ruby Bridges. I felt I needed to take some time and celebrate her life, and her example of today’s Gospel, as my way of celebrating Black History Month.

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This little girl started a huge movement just by walking confidently into a school. She was the first African American child to attend an all-white school in the south following integration legislature. Only one teacher agreed to work with her and she had to be escorted to and from school by US Marshals, past crowds of people threatening this innocent little girl. One woman even taunted Ruby with a black doll in a coffin.

She captured the hearts of many with her courage, including psychiatrist/writer Robert Coles and artist Norman Rockwell (his painting is above). In the video below, Coles shares how Ruby loved her enemies and prayed for those her persecuted her. Take a few minutes and watch–it’s very powerful:

Today she is an advocate for education and equality, and her foundation seeks to “empower children to embrace social justice and racial harmony.” She reminds us that we don’t have to be rich, old, educated, etc. to bring light and change to our world–we simply have to be good. She was a young black girl, hated by thousands, but she walked past those who hated her without returning those hateful sentiments (she even PRAYED for them!). There are many ways in which we excuse ourselves from addressing the injustices of our society, but Ruby reminds us we have no excuse.

We don’t have to become peace negotiators; we simply need to refrain from engaging in the hate around us. In that same sentiment, Jesus in today’s Gospel did not instruct us on peace theories or require us to develop specialized skills. He simply asks us not to reciprocate the hate around us, and to exercise love for those who hate and persecute us through prayer. What Ruby did was simple, and so is what Jesus asks of us.

“Each and every one of us is born with a clean heart. Our babies know nothing about hate or racism. But soon they begin to learn – and only from us. We keep racism alive. We pass it on to our children. We owe it to our children to help them keep their clean start.” –Ruby Bridges

Ruby, we celebrate you! We thank you!

Please share how other African Americans have inspired you in the comments! Happy Black History Month!

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