Ruby Bridges, was only six years old when she became the youngest icon of the Civil Rights Movement. Last week, she spent the morning of Martin Luther King, Jr Day recalling how she became the face of school desegregation. Bridges was speaking while appearing as a guest on ABC’s The View.
“I thought it was Mardi Gras!” she said when asked what she thought of the rioters who met her and her four federal marshal escorts at the school to protest her enrollment in William Frantz Elementary in 1960. The court-ordered first day of integrated schools in New Orleans, November 14, 1960. Growing up in New Orleans, she says she remembered hearing shouting and seeing crowds throwing things with police keeping watch during Mardi Gras and assumed the car she was riding in was simply pulling up near a parade.
She says her parents didn’t warn her what she would be facing, noting that they simply told her she was going to be attending a new school and that she was to be on her best behavior. At just six, she says she didn’t think she would have understood even if they had explained it to her. “My mother said, ‘Ruby, walk straight ahead and don’t look back’.”
Bridges recalled being one of many children who had taken part in a test. She remembers the door to door search for six-year-olds and people noting how smart she was. She later learned that she was one of six youngsters selected. The test was actually done by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to determine which children from the families who had volunteered would be selected to be the first Black child to be enrolled in an all White school. When crowds assembled outside her family’s home, she says, “I thought the commotion was [because] I’m so smart, I am going to college!” However, Bridges took the walk by herself into William Frantz Elementary as two of the children remained at their old school and three were transferred. Her father was reluctant to allow her to do it, but her mother insisted it was not for their child to prove her intelligence but for her to take a step for all Black children.
Bridges spent her first day in the office as a safety precaution while the White parents removed their children from the classrooms and teachers refused her in their rooms. The second day, a White Methodist minister broke through the crowd to take his daughter to school. Eventually, other students came back. Bridges would end up being the only child in the Barbara Henry’s classroom for the year. Meanwhile, her sharecropper parents lost their land, her father lost his job and the family was turned away from many grocery stores. Still, the family was supported as a neighbor gave her father employment, women took turns babysitting, men kept watch of the house and others walked behind the car the marshals picked her up in to ensure she was safe.
Bridges confessed that she didn’t realize the significance of her walk into that school and history, until she was about 19 years old and a reporter showed her the Norman Rockwell painting. She said her parents were not activists and people in her hometown simply didn’t talk about it after a while. “Until then, I didn’t realize it was such a history changing event,” said Bridges.
Bridges says she is very disheartened by relations today, stating: “I am very disheartened with race relations today. I believe the issue is more than the color of our skin.”
Now 61, Bridges and her husband have four sons and she is the chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation. Through the years, she’s been the subject of numerous books, documentaries and films. In addition to her numerous accolades, in 2014, a statue of Bridges as a child was erected in her old elementary school’s courtyard. For more information, visit www.rubybridges.com