Ruby Bridges: The Child Symbol of the Civil Rights Movement
Going to a new school can be a frightening experience. For Civil Rights icon Ruby Bridges, the only question that constantly rose in her mind was “Where are all the kids?”
In 1960, Ruby Bridges would be one of the few black children who were integrated into all-white schools in the south following Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). Amidst a cultural divide where black and white citizens were separated, but the social structure began to change. Thus the start of what would become the Civil Rights Movement and abolishing segregation in the south.
Although segregation within the public school system was deemed unconstitutional, cultural change would prove an uphill battle. However, organizations such as the NAACP persisted and encouraged black communities in the south to push for change. By 1957, less than two percent of southern schools were integrated. Within the same year, the south saw the admittance of nine black students to an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. White segregationists were outraged by the idea of black children integrating and studying beside their own. Protests, threats, and eventually, violence broke out, forcing President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send federal troops to protect the students, who would later become known as the “Little Rock Nine.”
The south wanted to keep segregation alive and openly ignored the federal court ruling. However, the federal court pushed the south to integrate. Enter Ruby Bridges. In 1960 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Bridges was only six years old. She was accustomed to attending an all-black school. When Bridges entered kindergarten, federal courts in New Orleans forced two white schools to integrate. It would start with first graders and every grade following the years after. Segregationists did not like that idea. Even though they were forced to oblige to the state, that didn’t mean opposers would make it easy.
In the late spring that same year, the city school board decided to test black kindergarteners. It was a test to determine which children would be admitted to white schools. Bridges was among the many students who would take the test. She would write her autobiography, “Through My Eyes,” of her experiences at that time.
“I took the test. I was only five, and I’m sure I had no idea why I was taking it,” Bridges said in her autobiography. The test Bridges — along with other children — were meant to be difficult and was set up so that black students would be less likely to pass. Bridges beat the odds and passed the test.
Imagine this, you’re six years old and your parents tell you that you’re going to a new school. The idea of changing schools, leaving your friends, and starting anew would be enough to cause panic attacks. Not for Bridges, however. In fact, the day she was set to begin her first day of school, her parents didn’t tell her about how different her new education would be.
Bridges reported not knowing what it meant to attend an all-white school. The only preparation she received from her mother was simply, “Ruby, you’re going to a new school today and you better behave.”
“It’s very hard for parents, I think, to explain to a six-year-old what was actually happening,” said Bridges. On the morning of Nov. 14, 1960, Bridges, her mother, and four U.S. marshals were escorted to William Frantz Elementary School.
Instead of seeing the school abuzz with chattering school children and parents, Bridges instead was greeted by barricades and a large crowd of protestors.
“I thought maybe it was Mardi Gras,” Bridges said. But the school was not a place of celebration, it was a place of protest and hatred.
The New York Times wrote, “Some 150 whites, mostly housewives and teenage youths, clustered along the sidewalks across from the William Frantz school when pupils marched in at 8:40 a.m.”
When Bridges exited the car, she was met with an onslaught of white segregationists chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.” Bridges didn’t understand what was happening. She didn’t think much about the crowds and entered the school.
Upon entry, Bridges would discover that the school was near empty. Five hundred children were pulled out of school by their enraged parents, leaving only a little under 200 students present (who were kept separate from Ruby’s first-grade class). Bridges was the only black student to attend William Frantz and the only student in her class. During her time there, she scarcely believed herself to be the only student, and wondered throughout the year, “Where are all the kids?”
What truly surprised her was when she saw her white school teacher, Barbara Henry. Admittedly afraid of Henry, Bridges was afraid that she would be like the rest of the white people who surrounded the school. She quickly realized that Henry would be one of her closest allies, however. She would later learn that the Boston-born educator would be the only teacher who volunteered to teach her.
Henry would do whatever it took to get Ruby to feel comfortable at William Frantz.
“I would always greet her with a compliment about how nicely she was dressed to help make her feel special, as she was, and to make her feel more welcome and comfortable,” said Henry.
While Bridges was attending school, Civil Rights protests were in full swing. Though the “March on Washington” didn’t take place until 1963, other acts of civil disobedience would proceed the event.
On Feb. 1, 1960, four college students held a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter to protest segregation. Ruby Bridges’ integration into was only the beginning ripple of a much larger wave. And it wasn’t until Bridges was much older that she realized the gravity of what she went through, and why it was significant.
Realization dawned on her when she saw herself depicted in Norman Rockwell’s painting, The Problem We All Live With. It was then Bridges understood what she stood for and what she would come to represent in times of great adversity. Bridges’ time in William Frantz was both positive and eye-opening. She would eventually be introduced to the other children in her school. The change was slow, but it was happening.
Just when you think Ruby Bridges’ legacy would solely revolve around that magnanimous year in 1960, you would be dead wrong. Despite racism, she rose and prospered and eventually graduated from high school and later go to school for travel and tourism and became a travel agent. She would later establish and a non-profit organization called, The Ruby Bridges Foundation, an organization that promotes tolerance and create change through education. Bridges continue to be a motivator and a symbol of inspiration for our generation and generations to come.