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The Hero Without & Within


By Robert Coles | March 1985

I’d like to discuss “heroism” — with the help of a few individuals I keep remembering and men­tioning in these columns and elsewhere as I try to figure out what this life means and what matters in it. I well remember the first time I heard the word “hero” used in connection with a person I knew; the one making the designation was Martin Luther King Jr. and he had in mind, as he talked, a six-year-old black child, Ruby Bridges, who had been walking past heckling, menacing mobs day after day in order to attend a New Orleans elementary school (William Frantz). The white children had been abruptly withdrawn when Ruby first arrived; so she was alone in a classroom with a teacher her­self reluctant to be working “under this awful fed­eral desegregation order,” she told me. Yet, even that teacher would one day agree with Dr. King — acknowledge how singularly impressive this child had proved to be in the course of her initial year of school. Dr. King had called Ruby “a hero of the civil rights movement.” The teacher would not come to that conclusion, but she certainly speci­fied some of the personal qualities she had seen in Ruby, and did so by remembering incidents, tell­ing stories, rather than summoning the abstractions of social science.

“I don’t know where that little girl gets the courage,” she commented one day. Then she con­fessed, in this manner, her continuing struggle to find the answers to that implied question:

I watch her walking with those federal marshals, and you can’t help but hear what the people say to her. They’re ready to kill her. They call her the worst names imaginable. I never wanted “inte­gration,” but I couldn’t say those things to any child, no matter her race. She smiles at them — and they’re saying they’re going to kill her. There must be 40 or 50 grown men and women out on those streets every morning and every af­ternoon, sometimes more. One of the marshals said to me the other day: “That girl, she’s got guts; she’s got more cour­age than I’ve ever seen anyone have.” And he told me he’d been in the war; he was in the army that landed in Norman­dy in 1944. He said Ruby didn’t even seem afraid — and he sure remembered how scared they all were sailing to France. I agree with him; she doesn’t seem afraid. There was a time, at the be­ginning, that I thought she wasn’t too bright, you know, and so that was why she could be so brave on the street. But she’s a bright child, and she learns well. She knows what’s happening, and she knows they could kill her. They look as mean as can be. But she keeps coming here, and she told me the other day that she feels sorry for all of them, and she’s praying for them. Can you imagine that!

Meanwhile, I was talking with Ruby, trying to comprehend her conduct, marveling at her appar­ently stoic and certainly brave endurance. She was, she kept telling me, “just trying to go to school.” When I expressed my chagrin at what she was ex­periencing, she observed that she loved being in school, loved learning her “letters” and her “num­bers.” When I wondered whether she might be afraid (she never seemed afraid, much to every­one’s amazement, her teacher’s especially), she didn’t say she was, or she wasn’t — but rather shifted the ground of our discussion this way: “I do what my granny says; I keep praying.” My mind was not at all satisfied with such a response. She was being evasive. She was “denying” her fear, pushing it out of her mind, I suspected. So I’d been trained to think: such courage, such heroism — a behavior enabled by the “mechanisms of defense” employed by the ego.

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