“I now know that experience comes to us for a purpose, and if we follow the guidance of the spirit within us, we will probably find that the purpose is a good one.” – Ruby Bridges
Ruby Nell Bridges is an American activist who became a symbol of the civil rights movement. At age six, she was the youngest of a group of African American students to integrate schools in South America.
She was the only black student to attend William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960. The eldest of eight children born into poverty in the state of Mississippi. Her family moved to New Orleans, in search of a better life, when she was four years old.
Two years later, the racially divided city had been ordered to integrate its public schools. A test was given to the city’s African American school children to determine which of those students were eligible to enter the all-white schools. Bridges passed the test and was selected to be enrolled at the city’s William Frantz Elementary School.
A 6 year old coming face to face with racism at school
On November 14, 1960, her first day at school, she was escorted to school by four federal marshals amidst the protests by parents and students. When Bridges and Marshal arrived at the school, large crowds of people were gathered in front yelling and throwing objects. There were barricades set up and the whole place was filled with police officers.
At first, Bridges being an innocent kid believed that it was like a Mardi Gras celebration. As soon as she entered the school, she was rushed to the principal’s office, where she spend her entire day. As infuriated students marched into the school to withdraw their children due to her presence.
On her second day, a woman threatened to poison her. Due to the threats, she was only allowed to eat home cooked food at school. Despite of the protests and anger, Bridges was welcomed with open arms by Barbara Henry, a young teacher from Boston. Bridges was the only student in Henry’s class and the two sat side by side at two desks, working on Bridge’s lessons in an otherwise empty classroom.
In an interview, Ruby Bridges said, “For a whole year, I sat in an empty classroom, with a teacher that was white, who came from Boston to teach me because teachers in New Orleans refused to teach black children.”
Another day, she was “greeted” by a woman displaying a black doll in a wooden coffin, she was spit at, been called a ‘n*gger’ and confederate flags were waved.
“That was my first encounter, knowingly, about racism, I realised at that point it’s not Mardi Gras. It all came together and made sense then. I knew that it was about me and I knew that it was about the color of my skin.” – Ruby Bridges
Although she faced such a heartbreaking criticism, she did not miss even a single day of school. At just six years of age, she became a strong part of the American Civil Rights movement.
The marshals did not only accompany Rudy the first day, it was an every day thing. They would tell her to look straight no matter what, in that manner, although she could hear the insults and threats of the furious crowd, she would not have to see the racist remarks or the livid faces of the protesters.
According to Bridges, the only people who she phase, was her teacher Barbara and Robert Coles. Coles was a renowned child psychologist who studied the reaction of young children toward extreme stress or crisis.
By the end of the year, the crowd thinned and a couple of more black students were enrolled at the school, making things a bit easier for Ruby.
Several years later, Charles Burks, a federal marshal who accompanied Bridges said that Bridges showed a lot of courage. She never cried or whimpered. He said, “She just marched along like a little soldier.”
Inspired by her bravery, Norman Rockwell, a renowned artist, painted a piece of art which he named, The Problem We All Live With in 1963. The painting is considered to be an iconic image of the American Civil Rights Movement.
The painting depicts young Bridges walking to school between two sets of marshals, a racial epithet marking the wall behind them.
“When I saw that painting, I realised that there was something much bigger than myself. So I think that sort of put me on my quest to tell my story and work with kids.” – Ruby Bridges
Her story was also recounted in Cole’s children’s book, The Story of Ruby Bridges 1955. It consists of their conversations during her time at the school.
In 1993 she began working as a parent communicator at Frantz, which by that time had become an all-Black school.
Her memoir, Through My Eyes, was released in 1999, the same year that she established the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which used educational initiatives to promote tolerance and unity among schoolchildren. In 2009 she published the children’s book Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story.
Ruby Bridges Foundation
“Racism is a grown-up disease, and we must stop using our children to spread it.” – motto of the Ruby Bridges Foundation
In 1999, Bridges formed the Ruby Bridges Foundation, headquartered in New Orleans. In 1993, she was inspired after the murder of her youngest brother, Malcolm Bridges, in a drug-related killing.
For a long time, Bridges looked after Malcolm’s four children, who attended the William Frantz School. She began volunteering there three days a week and became a parent-community liaison soon.
“My message is really that racism has no place in the hearts and minds of our children.” – Ruby Bridges
With her experience as a liaison at the school and her reconnection with influential people in her past, she began to recognise the need for bringing parents back to schools to take a more active role in their children’s education.
Bridges launched her foundation to promote the values of tolerance, respect and appreciation of differences. Through education and inspiration, the foundation seeks to end racism and prejudice in the society.
Ruby Bridges and The Black Lives Matter Movement
On Sunday, September 27, 2020, Ruby Bridges took over Selena Gomez’s Instagram account, which has nearly 180 million followers. Bridges shared a moving message related to race an equality on Selena’s Instagram.
The celebrity’s Instagram account has two videos posted by Ruby Bridges, the first one includes a series of clips from a documentary that showed her first day of 1st grade at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, in 1960.
The second has a heartfelt message by Ruby Bridges. She said, “I want you to remember that it is all of our shared history. This is your legacy too.”
In a video series produced by TIME with journalist Katie Couric, Bridges says that when she saw footage of Floyd’s death she thought about the “kids watching and what they must have been thinking.” She explains that she thinks the video was the “straw that broke the backs of so many people before that young man,” sparking protests across the U.S. and around the world.
Bridges also mentions that she thinks the protests from now, look “very different from the protesters during the Civil Rights Movement,” due to their diversity. “Yes, there were lots of white folks, Hispanics, lots of people that took part during the Civil Rights Movement,” She adds, “But what we’ve seen today in the streets is very, very powerful.”
“They’ve taken on this charge,” she continues. “I think the baton has been passed.” Bridges says the protests make her hopeful about the future of the US, adding, “I think when we open our doors and we are able to go back out, this world is going to be a different place.”