How 6-Year-Old Ruby Bridges Helped Topple Segregation

Ruby Bridges’ bravery inspired Norman Rockwell’s famous civil rights painting. She continues to stand for equality today.

Throughout history, the U.S. Supreme Court has made rulings that impact the lives of citizens across the country. Its rulings are inevitably praised by some and criticized by others. In 1954 during the civil rights movement, when the court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in schools is unconstitutional, the nation — primarily the South — erupted with shock, outrage and defiance. Now, not everyone in the South was against desegregation, but those who were got plenty of attention for their beliefs. And when desegregation of schools began, those opposed to racial equality came out to express their opinion, often violently. That didn’t stop a brave six-year-old girl — Ruby Bridges — from being the first Black student to attend her all-white elementary school in New Orleans, Louisiana. She made history, and today as the nation continues to deal with racism and inequality, she is a voice advocating for integration and tolerance.

Mobs, Marshals and Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges was born the year segregation was ruled unconstitutional, but because of resistance, it took six years before elementary schools in the South opened their doors to Black students. After completing and passing an exam to prove she could compete academically with white students (obviously), Ruby Bridges became the first Black student at William Frantz Elementary School, located only a few blocks from her home. Ruby Bridges’ family was concerned for her safety if she attended the all-white school, but her mother wanted her to have the education she was denied, so on November 14, 1960, Ruby Bridges arrived for her first day of school.

Her presence was met with resistance.

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges, accompanied by U.S. marshals, at William Frantz Elementary School.

Accompanied by four federal marshals, Ruby Bridges and her mother walked past crowds screaming racist slurs and threatening violence. As a child, she didn’t know why they were there. Recently, at the opening of an exhibit on her life, she said her parents had not explained her role in helping to end segregation. She thought the people had gathered for a parade, so she wasn’t frightened. That is, until she saw a Black doll in a baby’s casket in the crowd. It gave her nightmares. “I would dream that this coffin had wings and it would fly around my bed at night, and so it was a dream that happened a lot and that’s what frightened me,” Bridges said. One of the marshals, Charles Burks, later remarked that escorting her to school was a highlight of his life and a privilege, noting that he supported the Supreme Court ruling.

Over time, the crowds lessened. But Ruby Bridges still had to deal with what was happening inside the school. The parents of 500 white students who were against desegregation withdrew their children from the school when she arrived, and only one teacher — Boston native Barbara Henry — was willing to teach a Black student. This white teacher taught first grader Ruby Bridges alone for the entire year without any other students present in the classroom. The loneliness was the hardest part, Ruby Bridges expressed during a TED Talk. “Not being able to go to recess or have lunch in the cafeteria. I spent that whole year searching and looking for the kids.” The few children who remained, she said, were hidden by the principal so they would never come in contact with her, or she them.

Ruby Bridges

Barbara Henry and Ruby Bridges in the classroom.

Ruby Bridges is very thankful for Barbara Henry, whom she says was her best friend. “We had a grand time together, I think, side by side, just the two of us,” the former teacher said on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Bridges expressed that she finds it remarkable that Henry agreed to instruct her, given that the young teacher was new to the area, did not have any friends and was ostracized for her choice. “She showed me her heart. She made school fun. I never missed a day because of her,” she said. And Henry taught her that you should never judge a person by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

For Ruby’s parents, the decision to send their daughter to an all-white school was not without repercussions. Her father lost his job, her mother was refused service at stores, and her grandparents were evicted from the farm they had called home for a quarter of a century. They persevered, though, and Ruby Bridges didn’t leave the school. In fact, years later other members of her family attended.

Inspired by the Bridges family’s courage and the state of the country, Norman Rockwell painted The Problem We All Live With. It wasn’t until Ruby Bridges was a young adult that she saw the painting that symbolizes the struggle for racial equality: “It confirmed what I had been thinking all along — that this was very important and you did this, and it should be talked about.” She commends Rockwell for having “enough courage to step up to the plate and say, ‘I’m going to make a statement,’ and he did it in a very powerful way.”

Ruby Bridges

When the Norman Rockwell Museum loaned ‘The Problem We All Live With’ to the White House, President Obama invited Bridges to DC. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

Segregation and the Future

Ruby Bridges completed school, got married and has spent her life advocating for racial equality, tolerance, unity and equal opportunity for children. While segregation was ordered to end more than a half century ago, it still exists as racist beliefs linger. Speaking with Chalkbeat, Bridges said that getting past racial differences will come from the next generation. “We all know that’s where racism starts. None of our babies are born knowing anything about disliking one another, disliking someone that looks different. It’s taught to them and handed down. So, if we can teach them to be racist, we can teach them not to be.”

She finds it is crucial for schools to be integrated and that children of all races grow up together. The growing trend of segregation in schools occurring today, though, counteracts that. For example, the school Ruby Bridges integrated is now essentially segregated, with mostly Black students. And primarily white school district communities across the country — at least 36 since 2000 — are seceding from racially integrated school districts. These breakaways are compounding socioeconomic inequalities while isolating ethnic groups from each other.

Ruby Bridges believes integration is a moral obligation and that an isolationist mentality is not the answer — it’s a problem that was never solved during the civil rights movement. “It’s about brothers and sisters and taking care of each other… That’s the same thing that Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about. Now did we do it back then when he was talking about it? I don’t think so, which led us to where we are today. And now look how much worse it is. So at some point we have to stop, think about that and begin to come together for that moral obligation to one another as human beings.”

Coming together — in schools, churches, neighborhoods, etc. — is what Ruby Bridges believes society needs to do for a better future. And to not be afraid: “Don’t follow the path. Go where there is no path and begin the trail,” she says, paraphrasing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous quote. “When you start a new trail equipped with courage, strength and conviction, the only thing that can stop you is you!” end


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