By Ted Furlow
It was a Monday morning in November in the Big Easy and Louise Collins was not going to school.
But her mother was going and would continue to do so for almost a year. It was 1960, and New Orleans under a federal order to integrate, was opening the first grade at William Frantz Elementary that morning to little Ruby Bridges.
Due to a boycott by parents, Ruby walked into a school that was empty. She sat in class alone, she sat at recess alone, and she sat at lunch alone. Her only company was the federal marshal who walked her to school and took her to the bathroom. She was only six, with pig tails and a white dress, but more than a mere footnote in the painful history of race equality, she was a little giant in the struggle for civil rights. Her role in finishing off Jim Crow is immortalized in a famous Norman Rockwell painting, “The Problem We All Live With.”
On the flip side, Louise Collins’ mom stood with a group of mothers, shamelessly grasping at the last straws of a segregated south. The Moms became infamously known in the media as the “Cheerleaders,” daily heckling and spitting out vindictive, hate laced vitriol at Ruby as she walked to school. For a year they would front an unruly and angry mob, waving Confederate flags and racist placards, shouting the most outrageous and obscene remarks imagined…. all because a six-year-old girl who just wanted to go to school, was black.
In his 2010 blog for the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, Bill Steigerwald related the visit of John Steinbeck to New Orleans in December of 1960 to see the Cheerleaders. Steinbeck was writing his book, Travels with Charley, and wanted to include a segment of this experience in his text. He refers to the women as “ignorant” and “bigoted.” After writing down some of the language they used, Steinbeck realized that it could not be included in any book in 1960, and it still can’t. Steigerwald wrote that the Cheerleaders were “morons” that their primitive hate was irrational, that it was unjustified, and that their antics foresaw nothing. They are harsh evaluations, perhaps even unfair, but accurate.
As a 15-year-old sophomore in high school I watched it all unfold on the news, and although aware of the intolerance, fear, ignorance, and hate of racism, I was unprepared for the pain filled years to come in the battle for civil rights. I have often wondered what happened to the Cheerleaders. Had the savagery of that year been a wound that never healed, had there been a moral or social rapprochement, had there been a way to move on? Were they simply absurd caricatures of a society gone with the wind, or were they the shocking reflection of a contemporary society being forced to look at itself?
Those “years to come” would be filled with killings, assassinations, race riots, and violence; they were hard times then and they continue today. It has been 55 years since little Ruby Bridges walked into history, yet we still struggle with our intolerances. We fear the immigrant, we fear the cultural and social “other,” and we fear the uncertain. I would like to think we have moved beyond the Cheerleaders, but remembering the demonstrations against refugee children from Central America in Murrieta just last year, maybe not.
Mrs. Collins’ ranting was at the beginning of the decade, and for me the answer came out of a song at the end of the decade. If we keep saying it, maybe it will eventually take. Think of it as a Christmas wish… peace on earth, good will and love to all,
“Come on people now,
Smile on your brother,
everybody get together,
Try to love one another right now.”
Ted Furlow is Director of the Office of Pastoral Planning in the Diocese of San Bernardino.