On Nov. 14, 1960, U.S. marshals escorted Ruby Bridges past a jeering mob to William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. The 6-year-old was the first African-American to integrate a public school in the South. Norman Rockwell captured the historic moment in his painting, "The Problem We All Live With."
The little black girl in a white cotton dress looks so small flanked by the towering, faceless white marshals in gray suits. It is painful to think of a child so young being subjected to such violence.
I thought of that painting as I watched Oakland police officers on motorcycles escorting a group of about 50 second- and third-graders from New Highland Academy to the 81st Avenue Public Library branch.
The police weren't protecting the children from racists attempting to bar the doors. They were shielding them from the violence that has made it too dangerous for them to walk a mere eight blocks from their school to the library.
The children used to walk to the state-of-the-art library once every three weeks with their teachers and parent chaperones. They would return the books they had checked out and check out new ones. Librarian Derrick DeMay showed them how to use the library for research and they grew to love books.
The children and their adult chaperones would usually leave for the library at 9:45 a.m.
But on Jan. 10, right when they were about to set out, groups in two cars started shooting at each other on the street near the library. Thank God the teachers had happened to take the children for a bathroom stop first. Had they not, the entire group would have walked right into the path of the gunfire. People who were on the street where the shooting was taking place, including women with strollers, hit the ground and dove behind bushes.
Miraculously, even though about 60 shots were fired, no one was injured.
The teachers rushed the kids back into their classrooms and the school was put on lockdown. There have already been nine lockdowns this year. Less than a week later, Berkeley police serving a warrant stopped a car in front of the school and approached it with their weapons drawn. The students actually witnessed that scary incident, which resulted in yet another lockdown.
"This is really bad," said third-grade teacher Tracy Dordell. "We even have colors for how severe the lockdowns are."
Dordell says she gave her students an assignment to trace the moon cycles in a journal. They couldn't complete it because their parents wouldn't let them go outside after dark because of all the gunfire.
After the frightening close call near the library, she and the other teachers decided that it was too dangerous to continue walking the kids there. "We just couldn't justify walking them over there in that kind of atmosphere for fear something like that could happen again," says second-grade teacher Donald Carter.
On Thursday, they organized one final walk to the library. Therapist Susan Andrien with the Lincoln Child Center, which specializes in treating child trauma, met with the teachers. She told them it was important for the children to be able to return in order to reach some closure.
OPD agreed to provide two officers to escort the group. Carter issued an appeal to community members to join the protest walk. "It is important that the people in our Oakland community see and realize that our youth are the collateral damage from rampant violence," he said.
More than 50 children wearing signs calling for peace and books marched along the garbage-strewn streets. Parent Bridgett Spearman, therapist Andrien, City Council President Pat Kernighan and Councilmember Larry Reid joined them.
The children were excited and happy to return.
The question is, what comes next?
I don't think OPD will be able to provide an escort indefinitely.
How will we as a community find a way to provide for the safety of these children who are begging for the chance to be able to read books at their local library?
What is the point of the city's investing in a multimillion-dollar facility if people have to dodge gunfire to get to it?
There are no easy answers. But we owe it to these children to figure out something.
In 2013, one of the biggest civil rights issues for children living in too many urban communities is the basic right to be safe from street gunfire.