Florida parent Emily Conklin filed a formal complaint on March 6th against the Disney film Ruby Bridges. The movie, which is centered on the first African-American child to be enrolled in previously segregated William Frantz Elementary School, was contested on the basis that it taught children anti-Black slurs and anti-Black racism because it featured scenes of Ruby Bridges being threatened with lethal violence.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Conklin was one of two parents who declined to let her child watch the film. This was after parents were given permission slips and the opportunity to view the film’s trailer so that they could decide whether they wanted their child to see it or not. In addition to forbidding the film from being shown to her child, Conklin moved forward with a formal complaint against the film on March 6th, proposing that it be removed from the list of elementary school-approved films.
Tampa Bay Times notes that the film had been part of Pinellas County’s Black History Month lessons for years prior to the complaint. Conklin, in her complaint, maintains that the film should be shown to older children in the 8th grade age group, according to a form procured by Popular Information. In it, Conklin also says that she watched only the first 50 minutes of the movie and that the film received an “NR” rating from an unnamed website, despite it being made as a television film.
Toni Ann Johnson, the screenwriter of Ruby Bridges, spoke with CNN about the complaint, saying, “Ruby was 6 years old when she desegregated William Frantz…If children are old enough to be called the N-word and learn what it means, then it’s my opinion that second graders who are 7 and 8 years of age can and should begin to learn about the history of racism in this country.”
Johnson thinks parents should have the right to decide whether their children should watch a film or not, however, she does not believe it should give a parent the power to influence the school curriculum.
“They should not have the right to prevent teachers from teaching the Ruby Bridges story to other children receiving a public school education.” Johnson says.
Johnson is not alone in her views. As a response to the complaint, Pinellas school officials have temporarily pulled the film out of its classrooms until a final decision can be made by a review committee. Organizations advocating Black children have questioned the decision for its effects on other children in North Shore.
“Many from historically marginalized communities are asking whether this so-called integrated education system in Pinellas County can even serve the diverse community fairly and equitably.” Ric Davis, president of Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students, wrote in an open letter.
A spokesperson from Pinellas County Schools has stated that the movie will not be shown for the rest of this school year.
“Black and Brown children and their parents were not considered.” Davis wrote. Nearly half of North Shore Elementary students are People of Color with 24% of students being African-American and 12% being Hispanic.
In reaction to the news, some people have raised concerns about Emily Conklin’s personal beliefs and how they stand in contrast to her position as the Development Director for the YMCA of St. Petersburg. The YMCA shares a connection with the roots of Black History Month due to Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History”, forming the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) at the Wabash Avenue YMCA. The organization created Negro History and Literature Week which later on evolved to become Black History Month.
There is yet to be a statement from Ruby Bridges herself on the removal of her biopic from North Shore Elementary.
Who is Ruby Bridges?
Ruby Bridges, who is 68 years old today, was just 6 years old when she became the first African-American student to desegregate New Orleans public schools by attending William Frantz Elementary School. Initially, she was joined by six other students, but two of them eventually dropped out and the rest decided to leave the school with them.
Bridges had to attend said school accompanied by federal agents due to the aggressive death threats she received from parents protesting outside William Frantz Elementary. According to The Guardian, one parent held up a black doll inside a coffin to Bridges and that her parents were fired from their jobs because of their daughter’s unexpected role as a Civil Rights figure. Bridges was isolated from her classmates by parents who forbid them to play with her and by teachers who refused to teach her. Only Barbara Henry, a teacher who had moved from Boston, agreed to teach Bridges.
“I used to have nightmares about [it].” Bridges said about the doll in the coffin, “I would dream that the coffin was flying around my bedroom at night.”
It was during her second year at the school, when she was finally allowed to join other white children in their classroom, that she realized why she had received so many threats against her life. Bridges shared in an interview that she was told by a classmate: “I can’t play with you, my mom said not to because you’re a n****.”
Bridges later came to the conclusion that racism is, in her words, “a grown-up disease” that is passed onto children who do not understand hate.
While the movie about her life has only recently been subjected to a school pullout, her books have been one of many targeted by book bans throughout the country. Bridges’ has spoken out against book bans in Texas that targeted her book last year during an Oversight Committee hearing, saying, “Why would they be banned? But the real question is, why are we banning any books at all?”
Rep. Jamie Raskin said in the opening statement of a hearing on book bans that books against racism have been targeted because they “may make white children feel uncomfortable.” Raskin pointed out that bans of this nature “…understates the powers of empathy, compassion and solidarity that all children, or most children, have and are capable of developing. It also suggests that the actual lived experiences of people should be suppressed if learning of their experiences would make other people uncomfortable.”