Ruby Bridges: 60 Years Since Making History

Ruby Bridges made history 60 years ago when she was the first African-American student to integrate an elementary school in the South. At the age of only 6, Bridges had to be escorted by federal marshals into William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans as a loud and angry crowd gathered outside. Bridges at the time did not know the impact she would have on the Civil Rights movement, and what she and her parent’s bravery and strength would mean 60 years later.

The 1954 Brown V. Board of Education was a landmark Supreme Court case ruling in which the justices ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. The ruling coincided with the year of Bridge’s birth, almost as an indication of how Bridges would become a symbol of change in the civil rights movement. While the ruling passed, there still were public schools that took their time to desegregate. Four years before Bridges attended William Frantz Elementry School, Black parents had filed a lawsuit against the Orleans Parish School Board for not desegregating the school system. Then in 1960, a federal court ordered that Louisiana must desegregate. A test was given to African-American students to assess if they can compete academically at all-white schools, and Bridges and 5 other students passed. Of those 6, Bridges was the only one to attend William Frantz Elementary School that year, and November 14, 1960, would be her first day at school and solidify her story in history.

On her first day of school, Bridges was escorted by four federal marshals to her class, as a loud, angry crowd gathered outside of the school, shouting slurs, throwing things, and chanting ‘two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate’. In an interview with USA Today, Bridges explained how her young age and innocence shielded her from truly understanding a lot of what she saw & heard. Bridges was familiar with Mardi Gras and at first, thought that the crowds were part of the Mardi Gras celebration. She wasn’t scared until she saw some people in the crowd bring a coffin with a Black doll in it. Her first day was so chaotic that Bridges had to stay the whole day in the principal’s office as parents were pulling their children from the school, and teachers were refusing to teach her. On her second day, the only teacher that would teach her was Barbara Henry who went on to teach only her in a one student classroom for the whole year.

Outside of school, there was tremendous stress and retaliation against the Bridges. Her father, Abon Bridges, lost his job, and grocery stores refused to sell to her mother Lucille Bridges. Her grandparents, who were sharecroppers were evicted from the farm they had lived on for a quarter-century. Bridges told NPR, that the pressure put on the family was so intense that by the sixth grade her parents separated. Despite the retaliation, her family continued to support Bridges and her enrollment in William Franz Elementary. Bridges had to be escorted by federal marshals for a whole year, but by the time she made it to the second grade the protests had stopped, and several Black students enrolled in the school. Bridges’ bravery inspired the iconic painting “The Problem We All Live With” by Norman Rockwell. When Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris was elected, a viral photo surfaced online where the shadow of Bridges from Rockwell’s painting was leading Harris.

Her mother Lucille Bridges, who was a huge influence on her attending Franz Elementary, sadly passed away on November 10. Before enrolling in William Franz Elementary, her father was wary of sending her to William Franz but her mother encouraged it as she wanted her children to have a greater education than the one she received. Furthermore, her mother would walk with her every day to school.

On her Instagram, Bridges posted about her mother’s passing and wrote about the influence her mother had on her and the civil rights movement. “Today our country lost a hero. Brave, progressive, a champion for change. She helped alter the course of so many lives by setting me out on my path as a six-year-old little girl. Our nation lost a Mother of the Civil Rights Movement today. And I lost my mom. I love you and am grateful for you. May you Rest In Peace.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans in a statement released on the night of Lucille Bridges passing said, “Lucille insisted, seeing the action as an opportunity to help all Black children, and walked Ruby, with federal marshals, past chanting and taunting white protesters and to the schoolhouse. Mother and daughter both revealed their character and courage.”

60 years have passed since Ruby Bridges attended William Franz Elementary School holding the weight of the civil rights movement on her young shoulders. Thanks to her and her family’s bravery, history and change were made.

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