Ruby Bridges was born on September 8, 1954 at the height of New Orleans’ desegregation crisis. Her family relocated from Mississippi to New Orleans when she was four.
At age six, her parents volunteered her to be one of the first to integrate the New Orleans school system. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called for volunteers, and there were so many that they administered a test to admit the brightest students.
Ruby and five other kids passed. Bridges told Tampa Bay Times, “It was a very hard test. Only six of us passed it and three each were assigned to two schools. The two that were supposed to go with me to William Frantz (Elementary School) dropped out, so I went by myself.”
That’s how the image of 6-year-old Ruby walking down the steps to school with U.S. Marshals flanking her came to be. This moment in history became the basis of Norman Rockwell’s painting, The Problem We All Live With.
That first day, Ruby was met with crowds of protestors, who threw things and shouted. Young Ruby actually confused the commotion with a Mardi Gras celebration.
They chanted, “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.” One particular woman shouted every day that she would find a way to poison Ruby.
Parents refused to take their kids to school; teachers refused to teach. Ruby and the Marshals sat in the school office the entire first day because the chaos made it impossible to move.
The second day, 34-year-old Methodist minister Lloyd Anderson Foreman walked his 5-year-old daughter Pam through the mob, breaking the protest lines. “I simply want the privilege of taking my child to school,” he said.
Only one teacher, Barbara Henry, agreed to teach Ruby. No other parent allowed their child in the same class, so for a whole year, Barbara taught Ruby “as if she were teaching a whole class.”
Ruby coped with the strength her parents taught her and began praying for the protestors.
Another source of support was Air Force Captain Robert Coles, a psychiatrist who offered to counsel Ruby. For that first year, he visited the Bridges home every week, and later wrote the children’s book The Story of Ruby Bridges, to introduce children to this point in time.
Ruby didn’t see Norman Rockwell’s painting until the 1970’s, shortly before he died in 1978. In 2011, she met President Barack Obama in the White House and he told her, “I think it’s fair to say that if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here and we wouldn’t be looking at this together.”
In 1999 the Ruby Bridges Foundation was formed. She says, “Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.” She has also reunited with her former teacher Barbara Henry, and Pam Foreman, the first to break the boycott of William Frantz Elementary.
She continues to tour schools, speaking out against racism, and recently had a statue in her likeness unveiled at her old elementary school.