Ruby Bridges became an integral part of the American civil rights movement on November 14, 1960, when she integrated an all-white public school in New Orleans, Louisiana. Just six years old at the time, her historic ordeal continued to be examined and chronicled years later. Bridges was awarded the U.S. Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001. In 2011 she visited President Barack Obama in the White House, where Norman Rockwell's painting The Problem We All Live With was on display. It depicts Bridges' walking to school under the protection of federal marshals. In 2018, Bridges spoke out against gun violence.
Symbol of Change
Bridges came into the world on September 8, 1954, in a cabin in Tylertown, Mississippi. She was the first of eight children eventually born to her then-sharecropper parents, and the family moved to New Orleans in 1957. There, her father, Abon, found work as a gas station attendant and her mother, Lucille, was employed as a domestic. But tremendous change lay just around the corner.
In 1960 the United States, especially in the South, was still struggling with basic racial discrimination issues. One of these was the integration of public schools. Court-ordered integration was instituted in New Orleans in November of that year, and Bridges was one of the four randomly selected black students chosen to put the ruling into practice. Her father was reluctant to allow it, but her mother believed it was something that had to be done. So it was that on November 14, the six-year-old Bridges, accompanied by her mother and surrounded by federal marshals, walked through an angry white mob to enter the William Frantz Elementary School and become an enduring symbol of the civil rights movement.
Bridges's ordeal did not end after that first day, of course. The jeering segregationists continued their protest for a year, and the school remained largely empty for at least that long, because white parents would not permit their children to attend. There was also fallout at Bridges's home. As a result of her participation in school integration, Bridges's father lost his job and was unable to find another for nearly five years. Likely because of the stress, her parents divorced when she was 12. With time, however, life moved on. Bridges graduated from high school, went to work as a travel agent, and bore husband Malcolm Hall four children. In 1995 she founded the Ruby Bridges Education Foundation (now the Ruby Bridges Foundation) to promote education and interracial harmony. But even as the years passed and Bridges faded from the public eye, she was not forgotten.
Many people have memorialized, chronicled, and examined Bridges's experience in 1960. John Steinbeck, for instance, wrote of her courage in Travels With Charley, and Norman Rockwell immortalized that first day of school in his famous painting "The Problem We All Live With." Her friend and former counselor, child psychiatrist Robert Coles, included her story in Children of Crises: A Study of Courage and Fear (1964) and The Moral Life of Children (1986), as well as penning a children's book called The Story of Ruby Bridges (1995). Bridges provided her perspective in her own book, Through My Eyes (1999), which won the Carter G. Woodson Book Award. And perhaps most fitting of all, she was awarded a Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Bridges' integration of the William Frantz Elementary School, she spoke at a celebration held near the now empty school in New Orleans. That day the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing the anniversary of Bridges' desegregation of the school, encouraged Americans to celebrate its importance, and committed to continuing the legacy of the Supreme Court decision. The following year, Bridges met with President Barack Obama at the White House to see Norman Rockwell's painting, The Problem We All Live With, which first appeared as a controversial Look magazine cover in 1963. The president expressed his appreciation of civil rights pioneers like Bridges, telling her that without them, "I probably wouldn't be here."
Bridges spoke out in favor of gun control in 2018. She stated that she is distressed by the mass shootings in the United States. Bridges argued that the next era of civil rights will be banning assault weapons to keep children safe.
Carter G. Woodson Book Award; U.S. Presidential Citizens Medal, 2001.
People Weekly, December 4, 1995.
PR Newswire, January 5, 2001.
UPI's 20th Century Top Stories, November 24, 1960.
Washington Times, February 21, 1996.
"Civil Rights Icon Ruby Bridges Hall: Ban Assault Weapons," USNews.com, February 23, 2018, https://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2018-02-22/activist-lewis-honored-decades-after-civil-rights-arrest (August 28, 2018).
"President Obama Meets Civil Rights Icon Ruby Bridges," White House Web site, http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/07/15/president-obama-meets-civil-rights-icon-ruby-bridges (July 30, 2014).
"Ruby Bridges," African American Registry, http://www.aaregistry.com/detail.php?id=1492 (February 3, 2009).
"Ruby Bridges Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Desegregation of the New Orleans Public School System at LCM," Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com/family/index.ssf/2010/11/ruby_bridges_celebrates_50th_a.html (July 30, 2014).
"Text of Recognizing the 50th Anniversary of Ruby Bridges Desegregating a Previously All-White Public Elementary School," Govtrack, https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/111/hres1713/text (July 30, 2014).