Ruby Bridges is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Century. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we’ve assembled a list of 100 women who’ve made a substantial impact on our country or our lives over the past 100 years. Read about them all on Aug. 14.
When 6-year-old Ruby Bridges walked up the steps of William Frantz Elementary School on Nov. 14, 1960, she entered history, but she didn’t make it to class.
Inside the building, four federal marshals walked Bridges and her mother up the stairs to the principal’s office. They sat inside. The marshals sat outside.
They could see the scene below from the window. Screaming protesters. Signs that said, “We don’t want to integrate.” High school boys singing a new chorus to “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Glory, glory, segregation, the South will rise again.”
At 3 p.m., the school day was over, and she and her mother went home.
The next day, the crowds gathered again. One woman screamed at Bridges, “I’m going to poison you.” Inside the school, she met her teacher, Barbara Henry, a white woman, in an empty classroom. The school would be integrated, but Bridges would be taught in a class of one.
She couldn’t go to the cafeteria for lunch or outside for PE. A few white families braved the mob to bring their kids to class, but it wasn’t until spring that Bridges was allowed to see them, when Henry would bring them into her classroom for part of the day.
Bridges, now 65 and a civil rights speaker, author and advocate, wasn’t the first Black child to integrate a school. She was born in 1954, the same year the Supreme Court ended “separate but equal” education of African American children in Brown v. Board of Education. Southern states ignored or blocked the order. In 1957, nine Black high school students, “The Little Rock Nine,” enrolled in a white high school in Arkansas. The year Ruby went to first grade, three other little Black girls were going to first grade in another New Orleans white school.
But Bridges was alone.
Women of the Century: Ruby Bridges says “it’s a calling” to accept working for civil rights
Six-year-old Ruby Bridges became a civil rights icon when she walked by angry white mobs as part of desegregating public schools in Louisiana in 1960.
Question: Tell me about that day.
Ruby Bridges: Federal marshals came to the house and knocked on the door. I remember seeing four very tall white men and not really understanding why they were there. They explained to my parents that “we were sent by the president of the United States, and we are here to escort you and your daughter to school today.”
I remember getting into the car with them and driving to the new school that was very close to my house. It was actually my neighborhood school, but because it was a white school, I wasn’t able to attend before this very day. Upon arriving in front of the school, I saw mobs and mobs of people out in front of the school, and they were screaming and shouting, throwing things, waving their hands.
Being 6 years old, I know that what spared me was the innocence of a child, because seeing that mob outside and living in New Orleans, I was accustomed to Mardi Gras and actually thought it was Mardi Gras that day.
People often asked me, “Were you afraid?” And I wasn’t afraid because I thought that I was actually seeing something different. Once I got inside of the school, parents – white parents – refused to allow their children to go to school with me. So they rushed in and they took out their children. Over 500 kids walked out of school that day, and it was because I was there.
U.S. marshals escorted 6-year-old Ruby Bridges to and from William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans every day during the 1960 school year.AP
I don’t think most people realize that you had to have your very own teacher.
My teacher actually came from Boston to teach me. There were (few) kids in the school, and some of the teachers who remained refused to have anything to do with me.
Barbara Henry reunites with her former first-grade student Ruby Bridges in 1998. Bridges was the only student in Henry’s class in 1960, and neither missed a day of school all year.STEVEN SENNE, AP
Have you processed the level of racism and anger and hatred that it took for those people to be threatened or not want to be with this 6-year-old girl?
The worst part about it for me was just being lonely. Wanting someone to play with. Mrs. Henry was an amazing teacher, and she did everything she could to keep my mind off of what was happening outside, because you could hear them screaming and shouting, and then that went on all day long.
But it wasn’t until we were actually shooting the movie – there was a Disney movie done back in 1998 – and it was so surreal because it was like standing outside and watching your life play out before you. I remember when we came to the scene where the little girl had to go through the crowd and into the building. That was the very first time that I was able to see it from a totally different perspective. It was the very first time that I realized that they were not there just to frighten me. I could have really been harmed.
How did that experience impact who you are, what you became?
It really shaped me into who I am, because what frightened me the most about that experience at 6 was the protesters. They would bring this tiny baby’s coffin and they put a Black doll inside of it. And they would march around the school with this coffin and I would have to pass them to get inside of the building. It stuck with me for a very, very long time.
I believe that what happened is that those people saw change. I don’t believe that they even processed it and saw a child. All they saw was what was changing and what they thought was being taken away from them.
I think the lesson that I learned is that you can’t look at a person and judge them. That you have to allow yourself an opportunity to really get to know them, no matter what they look like.
Every time I got inside of the school building and into my classroom, this white woman greeted me who showed me her heart. She was amazing. She made school fun. I knew that she cared about me, and I felt safe and I couldn’t wait to get to school. I knew that if I just got past the mob, inside of that classroom, I just knew that I was going to have a good day. I think that we realized that we had to be there for one another. Neither one of us missed a day of school that whole year.
And so, what shaped me into who I am today is that it was very easy for me to look at her and yet realize that she looked exactly like those people outside, but she was different. I could see that at 6 years old, that she was different. I think the lesson that I learned is that you can’t look at a person and judge them. That you have to allow yourself an opportunity to really get to know them, no matter what they look like.
I felt like if I was really going to make a difference in the world that I needed to somehow be able to explain that to kids. That they would get it if I took my time and really explained it to them. I think it worked because we all know that none of our babies come into the world knowing anything about disliking someone because of the color of their skin. It’s something that they’re taught. I believed that if they could be taught to be racist, they definitely can be taught not to be.
More than 50 years after their first meeting, Ruby Bridges visited with Charles Burks, one of the U.S. marshals who escorted her to and from school when she integrated a Louisiana school in 1960.Michael Conroy, AP
You are featured in the famous Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With.” President Barack Obama invited you to be there when it was hung in the White House. What did that mean to you?
That was one of the highlights of my life. We were to commemorate the 50th anniversary of my walk into the school. So I find myself standing there right outside the Oval Office with him and looking at it. It was closed to the public, only maybe a dozen people or so, and I remember when I went into his office, they were explaining protocol, how we should greet him once he came into the room.
Having him open the door and having him walk up to me, that is the moment that it became real. That we do have an African American president. And I extended my hand to greet him, and it was so funny. He put his hands on his hips and he said: “Are you kidding me? I want a hug.” And he just opened his arms, and as I looked over his shoulder around the room, those 12 people were tearing up. And at that moment, I realized that wasn’t really about he and I. It was about the time. The time in between and all of that hard work, and sacrifice, and protesting, and lives lost that brought these two people together at that moment in this White House.
Norman Rockwell depicted Ruby Bridges’ history-changing walk in his painting “The Problem We All Live With.”Kunhardt McGee Productions, WNET and Inkwell Films
What did he say to you?
He sort of whispered in my ear and he said, “I cannot begin to tell you what an honor it is to welcome you into this White House under this administration.”
What do you think about schools that are still segregated today?
I always believe that if we are going to get past our racial differences, it’s going to come from our kids, and it seemed to me the best place for kids to really get to know one another was in schools. They spend the majority of their day in schools, probably more than they spend at home. And so I believe that schools should be integrated. That will allow them an opportunity to get to know one another.
What goes through your mind when you see all the protests today?
I’m very optimistic about it. I spent so much of my time, the last 25 years, in schools all across the country, speaking to kids about my experience and trying to get them to understand that racism really has no place in the hearts and minds of our children. I believe that if we are to get past our racial differences, it’s definitely going to come from our young people.
I spent so much of my time … speaking to kids about my experience and trying to get them to understand that racism really has no place in the hearts and minds of our children. I believe that if we are to get past our racial differences, it’s definitely going to come from our young people.
Everybody remembers you as the 6-year-old girl in the white dress. What do you want them to know about the grown-up, confident, successful Ruby Bridges today?
Oh, my God. I don’t know who that is. Grown-up, confident. What I’d like for them to know is I’ve tried to stay true to who I am. I’ve tried to be obedient to the lesson that I learned in the first grade and that my work has really been about bringing people together, but I chose to do it through our kids. That’s the path that I want to be on. I want to see the fruits of that labor. And I think I’m beginning to see it. What I found really amazing and really spoke to me was that John Lewis dedicated his whole life to this work, and I believe that when you accept this sort of work, it’s not a job. It’s a calling.
What advice today would you have for 6-year-old Ruby?
It would be the same advice that the federal marshals gave me. They said, “Ruby, walk straight ahead and don’t look back.” That’s what they told me at 6 years old, and I’ve tried really, really hard to do that. I think that would be my advice to all of us who were on this path and want to see a better world for our children.
Nicole Carroll is editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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