Ruby Bridges (1954 – ) is an American civil rights activist who became the first black child to enter a previously all-white elementary school in Louisiana. By breaking the long-standing colour bar to school integration, she became a symbol of the civil rights movement and a new era of racial integration in American schools.
Bridges was born 8 September 1954, in Tylertown, Mississipi. Both her parents Lucille and Abon Bridges were poor farmers, working on the sharecropping system. Ruby was the eldest of five children and as a child was responsible for looking after her younger siblings. When she was two years old the family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where her father gained work as a gas station attendant.
In May 1954 (just a few months before Bridges was born), the Supreme Court had passed a landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. This ruled that the policy of segregation in southern schools was inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. However, despite the ruling, southern states were deeply committed to a policy of segregation and they made no efforts to implement desegregation. In 1957, federal troops were sent to Little Rock Arkansas to force desegregation in a high school, but elementary schools all remained segregated.
By 1960, the federal government were putting more pressure on southern states to implement the court decision and stop assinging children based on race. In response to this pressure, the New Orleans local education board introduced an entrance examination as a way to discourage black students. The NAACP still saw this as an opportunity for the first black students to gain entrance to an all-white elementary school. The NAACP contacted local black families and encouraged them to send their children for the exam. Ruby Bridges was one of six black children to sit the exam and pass. However, due to intense political and social opposition, two families decided not to send their young children. Three other children were transferred to a previously all-white elementary school – McDonogh No. 19.
Ruby’s father Abon was initially worried about the idea of allowing Ruby to go the elementary school due to the opposition, but her mother, Lucille felt that it would enable Ruby to gain a better education – an education that had always been denied to her. Also her mother also felt it was important that somebody was willing to break the barrier. Many years later Ruby reflected that: “I think my mother and father were the bravest people I know,”
The decision to end segregation was supported by Judge J. Skelly Wright who passed many judgements upholding Brown vs Board of Education in Louisiana.
The first day of school was 14 November, 1960. Ruby Bridges was accompanied by four Federal Marshalls and was given instructions to walk straight ahead with eyes down, so she wouldn’t see racist slogans and the hate in protestors faces. There was a large crowd outside the school who were vociferous in their protests. For a six year old child attending the first day of school, it was a shocking and puzzling experience. She recalls:
“Driving up I could see the crowd, but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.”
In protest at here attendance all the white parents removed their children, meaning that on the first day, Ruby was the only child in school. All the teachers except one (Barbara Henry from Boston) refused to teach whilst a black child was enrolled. The next day, one white child (Pam Foreman Testroet) returned to school – she was the daughter of a local Methodist minister Lloyd Anderson Foreman. Foreman said “I simply want the privilege of taking my child to school …” After his example, other started to follow suit and in the next few days, the school boycott dissipated and most of the children returned to school. However, the deeply ingrained prejudice and unwillingness to integrate meant that for the first year, Bridges remained the only child in her class taught by Barbara Henry.
For the whole year, Ruby had to walk to school protected by Federal Marshalls, because protestors made veiled death threats. Because of a threat to poison her, Bridges was only allowed to eat food she brought from home. Trying to recall the experience, she commented.
“What I do remember about first grade and that year was that it was very lonely. I didn’t have any friends, and I wasn’t allowed to go to the cafeteria or play on the playground. What bothered me most was the loneliness in school every day.”
Bridges was also supported by child psychiatrist Robert Coles -who specialised in children dealing with trauma. He volunteered to provide weekly counselling sessions to Ruby. Coles wrote about her experience in The Story of Ruby Bridges. Many years later Coles recounted the importance of meeting Ruby and what it meant to follow her unique struggle against hatred at such as early age.
“She is my touchstone, because if I hadn’t seen her and seen what happened, I would have gone on and never gotten involved. I was just thunderstruck by that mob and her stoic dignity, and so I went back and watched it again and again.” (NY Times)
A relative of Coles also provided an immaculate set of school clothing for Ruby to wear, she only discovered this many years later.
The decision to send Ruby to a previously all-white school divided society. The resentment against the Bridges family caused Albon to lose his job as gas station attendant. They were prohibited from shopping at their local grocery store.
After graduating from high school, Ruby worked as a travel agent for 14 years. In 1993, she began working as a parent liason at Frantz school. Also her youngest brother was murdered and as a result she took in his four young daughters to look after herself.
In 1999, she established the Ruby Bridges Foundation which promotes educational initiatives to promote tolerance and unity among schoolchildren. She also published an autobiography Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges.
“racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.”
In 2001, she was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by Bill Clinton.
In 2005, she lost her home during Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane also damaged the William Frantz Elementary school which was already in danger of closing. Bridges fought to keep the school open, but also because the school had become all black students, she wished it to become a mixed race school. She said that equality wasn’t enough, but there needs to be an opportunity for children of different races to mix in a natural environment so that a sense of separation isn’t created from the start.
“I think that it’s not just about having equal rights, I mean, that’s important, but it’s also about allowing our children an opportunity to get to know one another,”
In 2011, the famous painting by Norman Rockwell – depicting her entry to school on that day in 1960, was displayed in the West Wing of the White House. She also met with President Barack Obama who said to Bridges. “I think it’s fair to say that if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here and we wouldn’t be looking at this together”
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Ruby Bridges Biography”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net. Published 18 July 2019.
The Story of Ruby Bridges:
The Story of Ruby Bridges: by Robert Coles at Amazon
Through My Eyes
Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges at Amazon
Quotes of Ruby Bridges
“Each and every one of us is born with a clean heart. Our babies know nothing about hate or racism. But soon they begin to learn – and only from us. We keep racism alive. We pass it on to our children. We owe it to our children to help them keep their clean start.”
“Don’t follow the path. Go where there is no path and begin the trail. When you start a new trail equipped with courage, strength and conviction, the only thing that can stop you is you!”
“I had never seen a white teacher before, but Mrs. Henry was the nicest teacher I ever had.”
“As African-Americans, people of that generation felt pretty much if they were going to see changes in the world, they had to make sacrifices and step up to the plate. I’m very proud that my parents happened to be people who did. They were not privileged to have a formal education. Ruby Bridges”
“If kids have the oportunity to come together to get to know one another, they can judge for themselves who they want their friends to be. All children should have that choice. We, as adults, shouldn’t make those choices for children. That’s how racism starts.”
“The greatest lesson I learned that year in Mrs. Henry’s class was the lesson Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to teach us all: Never judge people by the color of their skin. God makes each of us unique in ways that go much deeper.”
– Ruby Bridges
Famous Americans – Great Americans from the Founding Fathers to modern civil rights activists. Including presidents, authors, musicians, entrepreneurs and businessmen. Featuring Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Madonna, Oprah Winfrey.
Inspirational people – People who made a difference in a positive way and left the world a better place.
People who fought for human /civil rights – People who campaigned for equality, civil rights and civil justice.