The Life of Ruby Bridges: The Little Girl who Changed American Education
Josh Meyers, SYRACUSE, N.Y. – It was a brisk fall morning on November 14th, 1960, when federal marshals escorted a little African American girl to her elementary school. She would become the first African American to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana.
That little girl grew up to become a civil rights activist and author. Her name is known to people across the nation: Ruby Bridges.
Bridges spoke at tonight’s virtual MLK Celebration Event, honoring the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while also talking about her life as an activist toward civil rights and equality.
She was born in a small town in Mississippi, where her family lived in poor conditions. They moved to New Orleans when Bridges was only 4.
“In Kindergarten, I was 5 years-old and attending an all-black school,” Bridges said tonight. “That was actually further away from home.” Her father was against Bridges going to school, but she was committed to getting an education anyway.
When the opportunity to attend an all-white school came up, her family thought it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. “Being a sharecropper, if it was time to get the crops in, you could not go to school,” Bridges explained. “School was a luxury for them.”
Ruby Bridges was among three African American students who volunteered to attend William Frantz Elementary School. However, the two other students pulled out after receiving threats from the community.
“By the time the first day came, two of those young girls and the tie families changed their minds, and they pulled their kids out.” Bridges said.
U.S. marshals greeted Bridges as she began to walk to school. She was met with large mobs of protesters who didn’t want the elementary school to be desegregated.
“The minute I turned the corner, there were mobs of people standing out in front of the school, screaming and shouting and carrying signs and throwing things,” Bridges said about that unforgettable day. She was only 6 years-old.
Bridges recalled the angry protesters who wanted her dead. She and her family were met with death threats, and hundreds of students and faculty left the school soon after.
“The marshals rushed us inside of the building,” Bridges said. “The very next day, the crowds had almost doubled in size.”
At only 6 years of age, Ruby Bridges experienced something that only a few people experience in their entire lifetime. Yet, she made history at a time where she didn’t know what was truly going on. All she knew was that she was scared every day before she left for school.
“If I were frightened, I would say my prayers before school, before I got into the building,” she said. “Even as a very young child, I always believed in my prayers and felt like it would protect me.”
Her actions as a child resonate with people fighting for change today. She believes that passing the torch onto future generations is what will keep her prayers and beliefs alive. It is what will keep Dr. King’s dream alive.
“All of us, no matter what age, we have a responsibility to try and leave the world better than we found it,” Bridges reflected. “At 6 years old, I learned the lesson that Dr. King tried to teach all of us. That you cannot look at a person and judge them by the color of their skin.”
Throughout her life, Bridges focused her work on helping kids. Her book This is Your Time, inspires young readers to keep fighting for what she believed in.
“I decided a long time ago that I wanted my work to really be with kids,” she said. “I remember being in that empty school building and being really lonely.”
Bridges reminded tonight’s audience to remember the ancestors who struggled in America. “The things that our ancestors had to endure to get us to where we are today, sitting here where we are today, privileged, really when we think about where they come from.”
After a year of civil unrest and protests across the country, Bridges left the S.U. community with a final message: to keep fighting.
“We have a responsibility to pick up that torch and keep it moving,” she said. “I do believe that when we come through this movement, we will be better.”