When 6-year-old Ruby Bridges changed everything
Escorted by federal marshals past screaming protesters, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges became the first African-American student at William Frantz Elementary School on Nov. 14, 1960. Almost as soon as she went in, white parents began pulling their children out of the school — as well as out of McDonogh No. 19, which was integrated the same day — but, The Times-Picayune reported the next day, there was no violence, as some feared there might be. With that, the newspaper’s coverage continued, “desegregation of schools here was a fact.”
Ruby Bridges quickly become a symbol of courage in the face of overwhelming prejudice and outright anger. It’s a mantle she wears as an adult just as she handled the difficult role forced upon her as a child: with grace. In 1999, Bridges, who still lives in New Orleans, founded the Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote “”the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences.” She still continues to inspire. “Everybody knows these are very trying times for us in this country,” she said in a 2016 interview with The Washington Post. “I believe that we have to come together and we have to rely on the goodness of each other. Faith will help us get through this, just as it did before.”
- Three other black girls — first-graders Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gail Etienne — integrated McDonogh No. 19 Elementary School the same day that Bridges entered Frantz. Like Bridges, they had the school largely to themselves because white parents withdrew their children. The girls left after two years.
- The identity of which New Orleans schools were to be integrated that day was a closely guarded secret, an apparent effort to stem any violent protests. It wasn’t until federal marshals showed up with the children that the schools were identified.
- Bridges’ mother told her that if she got scared, she should just say her prayers. “That was how I started praying on the way to school,” Bridges later wrote. “The things people yelled at me didn’t seem to touch me. Prayer was my protection.”
- Bridges’ parents volunteered to enroll her at Frantz after the NAACP sent out a request for parents willing to desegregate schools. That decision was tough on the family: Her father lost his job, the grocery store where the Bridgeses had shopped refused to let them buy food there, and her grandparents, who were sharecroppers in Mississippi, were thrown off their land.
- Frantz was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, and a bronze statue of the young Bridges was unveiled there in 2014, on the 54th anniversary of her enrollment.
- Bridges’ story has been commemorated in countless books, films and songs. In 2013, she rode in the position of honor — inside a glittering red high-heel pump — in the Krewe of Muses’ parade.
That unforgettable image of the tiny Bridges waking down the school steps surrounded by towering federal marshals endures as an iconic symbol of school integration in New Orleans — and in America. Artist Norman Rockwell painted for Look magazine a work titled “The Problem We All Live With,” which shows Bridges being escorted to school. It was on display in the White House in 2011, when Bridges met with President Barack Obama, the country’s first black president. Speaking of her and other civil rights icons, Obama said: “I think it’s fair to say that if it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t be here today.”