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A shorter version of this article appeared in the Deseret News today. 

Norman Rockwell had extraordinary talent for painting the ordinary moments of American life. Many of his best-loved works are currently on display at the BYU Museum of Art through February 13th. As the exhibit’s title “American Chronicles” suggests, the collection is a window into America’s past, even more specifically Americans’ past. From prayers at grandparents’ dining tables to whispers at children’s bedsides. From summer swimming-hole adventures to family station-wagon vacations. From conversations at local diners to public comments at town halls. Rockwell’s art captures the everyday experience of American life.

And that makes Rockwell’s iconic image of Ruby Bridges all the more chilling to our national consciousness. A young black girl in a starched white dress walks to school surrounded by four U.S. Marshals.  A racial slur scrawled across the building wall and the splatter of a recently thrown tomato bespeak the unseen crowd enraged by school integration. The painting’s title “The Problem We All Live With” underscores the then all too ordinary reality of pernicious racism.

As we commemorate the Civil Rights movement on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a look back at Ruby Bridges reminds us that ordinary Americans strengthened by faith are at the heart of extraordinary events.

Ruby’s grandparents were Mississippi sharecroppers. The day before Ruby was born, her pregnant mother carried 90 pounds of cotton on her back. She wanted a better life for Ruby. The family moved to New Orleans where her father worked at a service station. Despite her family’s modest means, Ruby recalls her early childhood as “comfortable and safe,” filled with jacks, jump rope, and tree climbing.

But that changed in 1960, six years after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that so-called “separate but equal” segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Louisiana was among five Deep South states that continued to resist. Based on test scores, Ruby was selected as one of four first graders to integrate two elementary schools. Ruby was sent alone to William Frantz Public School.

On Ruby’s first day at her new school, 150 protestors gathered outside, “mostly housewives and teenage youths” noted the New York Times. They chanted, “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate; eight, six, four, two, we don’t want a chigeroo.” Six-year old Ruby was oblivious to the meaning, and would later recall singing the rhyme to jump rope with her friend.

By the end of her first day, the crowd outside was even bigger. As she left, Ruby remembers seeing someone carrying a black doll in a coffin. Her autobiography Through My Eyes shows a photograph of smiling demonstrators posing with the coffin for the cameras—a haunting image. When Ruby arrived the next day, some spat at her and shouted, “Go home, nigger.” One woman screamed, “I’m going to poison you. I’ll find a way.” Ruby recalls, “She made the same threat every morning.”

Street riots erupted in New Orleans that first week. Violence escalated with stabbings and gasoline bombs. Segregationists left burning crosses in black neighborhoods. Parents and children from the two integrated schools traveled to Baton Rouge and carried a black coffin into the Louisiana Capitol. The coffin contained a blackened effigy of U.S. Judge J. Skelly Wright, who had ordered the local integration. A newspaper reported, “The House stood up and, with a long roll of applause, saluted the parents. . . . As the demonstrators moved into the legislative chambers, one woman in the group shouted, ‘The judge is dead, we have slaughtered him.’” The grim jeer was met with laughter and feigned mourning.

Back in New Orleans, Ruby was not the only target of the angry taunts and insults. The mob also threatened each white student, hoping to shut down the school entirely rather than integrate. And it was almost successful. After several days, only three of the 576 white children arrived for school.

One of them was the daughter of Reverend Lloyd Foreman, a Methodist minister who remained undeterred by the raucous crowd. Nobel-prize winning author John Steinbeck had been traveling across country and made his way to New Orleans. In Travels with Charley, he describes the moment when Reverend Foreman and his daughter arrived at school:

“A shrill, grating voice rang out. The yelling was not in chorus. Each took a turn and at the end of each the crowd broke into howls and roars and whistles of applause. This is what they had come to see and hear. No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene. On television the sound track was made to blur or had crowd noises cut in to cover. But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate.”

Another little girl endured for three weeks, but awoke one night screaming. She pleaded not to be sent back to school with “those ugly ladies; those ladies who yell so ugly.” Her family packed up and left Louisiana.

Ruby also had nightmares and would wake her mother for comfort. In Through My Eyes, she remembers her mother’s response: “Did you say your prayers before you went to sleep? Honey, that’s why you’re having a bad dream. Go back now, and say your prayers.” Remembering those moments, Ruby writes, “Somehow it always worked. Kneeling at the side of my bed and talking to the Lord made everything okay.” She also remembers, “My mother and our pastor always said you have to pray for your enemies and people who do you wrong, and that’s what I did.”

Dr. Robert Coles documented Ruby’s prayers in the children’s book The Story of Ruby Bridges and in interviews and articles. He had watched Ruby go to school and wondered how she could cope with such traumatic experiences. He offered to counsel her and was “puzzled” by her lack of symptoms. One school morning, Ruby’s teacher Barbara Harvey watched Ruby stop in front of the screaming mob and saw her lips moving. Dr. Coles later asked Ruby what she had said to the crowd. “I wasn’t talking,” Ruby told him. “I was praying. I was praying for them.” Dr. Coles asked her why, and Ruby answered, “Well, don’t you think they need praying for?”

Every morning and afternoon, she said the same prayer: “Please, Dear God, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.” Recognizing the words of Jesus on the cross, Dr. Coles reflected in an interview, “Now, I’d heard that some place before. . . . It silenced me.” Ruby’s parents could not read or write, Dr. Coles noted, “and yet they had taught her Biblical truths in a way that she was to live them out. I would like to see some of us who have fancy educations bring up our children similarly.”

As the months passed, a few white children began coming back to school. One day when Ruby was allowed to visit with them, she finally learned what all the commotion had been about. “I can’t play with you,” a little boy told her. “My mama said not to because you’re a nigger.” Only then did Ruby begin to understand:

“At that moment, it all made sense to me. I finally realized that everything had happened because I was black. I remember feeling a little stunned. It was all about the color of my skin. I wasn’t angry at the boy, because I understood. His mother had told him not to play with me, and he was obeying her. I would have done the same thing. If my mama said not to do so something, I didn’t do it.”

When Ruby reached the second grade, the protestors were gone. Ruby endured, and the crowd gave up. Reflecting on her daughter’s ordeal decades later, Ruby’s mother wrote: “Our Ruby taught us all a lot. She became someone who helped change our country. She was part of history, just like generals and presidents are part of history. They’re leaders, and so was Ruby. She led us away from hate, and she led us nearer to knowing each other, the white folks and the black folks.”

It is fitting that Norman Rockwell gave us the enduring image of Ruby Bridges. Few routines could be more ordinary in American life than a child’s daily arrival to school. Yet little Ruby was at the center of an extraordinary conflict in American history. How did she endure it? By the most ordinary of means—prayer. It’s hidden from Rockwell’s painting, but when faced with “The Problem We All Live With,” Ruby sought help from a source of strength available to each of us.

America changed as a little girl outlasted her enemies by praying for them.