Born the same year as the groundbreaking case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, integration for Ruby Bridges and so many others was impeded by resistant southern states until early 1960 — the year the federal court formally ordered desegregation in Louisiana.
Bridges became one of six children in New Orleans to pass the entrance exams required to attend an all-whites school. Of the six children, two decided to remain at their current school, and three — who would become known as the McDonogh Three — were transferred to McDonogh Elementary School. Bridges was sent to William Frantz Elementary School by herself. Despite legal pressures, the school delayed Bridges’ admittance until November 1960.
Bridges father Abon at first was not supportive of the idea, fearing for his daughter’s safety; however, Bridges mother Lucille was adamant, saying it was important “for all African-American children.”
Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks is reported as saying: “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very very proud of her.”
According to the National Women’s History Museum:
Ruby and her mother were escorted by four federal marshals to the school every day that year. She walked past crowds screaming vicious slurs at her. Undeterred, she later said she only became frightened when she saw a woman holding a black baby doll in a coffin. She spent her first day in the principal’s office due to the chaos created as angry white parents pulled their children from school. Ardent segregationists withdrew their children permanently. Barbara Henry, a white Boston native, was the only teacher willing to accept Ruby, and all year, she was a class of one. Ruby ate lunch alone and sometimes played with her teacher at recess, but she never missed a day of school that year.
While some families supported her bravery—and some northerners sent money to aid her family—others protested throughout the city. The Bridges family suffered for their courage: Abon lost his job, and grocery stores refused to sell to Lucille. Her share-cropping grandparents were evicted from the farm where they had lived for a quarter-century. Over time, other African American students enrolled; many years later, Ruby’s four nieces would also attend. In 1964, artist Norman Rockwell celebrated her courage with a painting of that first day entitled, “The Problem We All Live With.”
By Bridges’ second year of school, many adjustments had been made. Bridges no longer attended class by herself, and the school began to see full enrollment again.
Her mother later said: “Our Ruby taught us a lot. She became someone who helped change our country. She was part of history, just like generals and presidents are part of history. They’re leaders and so was Ruby. She led us away from hate, and she led us nearer to knowing each other, the white folks and the black folks.”
Bridges is currently an activist and founded The Ruby Bridges Foundation, which was established to promote tolerance and create change through education. She was made an honorary Deputy Marshall in 2000.