Fifty years ago on November 14, 1960, 6-year-old Ruby Nell Bridges became a symbol for the Civil Rights movement and made history as the first African-American student to enter the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.
Bridges’ historic journey to school was immortalized in Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With, which appeared on the cover of Look magazine on January 14, 1964.
In the painting, a small African-American girl with neatly braided hair tied with white ribbons, wearing a white dress, white socks and shoes is walking with four White men, two in front and two behind. The men are so much taller than the child that their faces are not seen; only their arms and legs. On the arm of each man is an armband with the words “Deputy U.S. Marshal”.
Over the little girl’s head the word “ni _ _ er” is scrawled and there is evidence that someone has violently thrown eggs and tomatoes that smashed against the wall. All this violence unleashed by a White mob because a six-year-old African-American child was going to her first day of Grade One classes at the previously all-White William Frantz Elementary School in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. This is the same area where Hurricane Katrina touched down in 2005 and the world again witnessed the mistreatment of Africans in America.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled against segregated public schools in 1954 with the Brown v Board of Education decision, New Orleans had not desegregated its schools even though in 1956, Federal District Court Judge, J. Skelly Wright, ordered the Orleans Parish School Board to design an effective plan for the desegregation of New Orleans’ public schools.
The Bridges (Abon and Lucille) were forced by the segregation law to send their child to Johnson Lockett Elementary School for her kindergarten year, where the student body and staff were African-American, even though it was farther from their home than the all-White William Frantz School.
During the spring of 1960, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) informed the Bridges their child was one of the few to pass a test the school Board had administered to choose African American children to attend two all-White schools and she had been chosen to attend the William Frantz School.
Of the six children chosen to integrate the schools, two decided to stay in their old schools and the other three were assigned to McDonough 19, which left six-year-old Ruby Bridges the lone African-American child to integrate William Frantz Elementary School on November 14, 1960.
On November 14, 1960, four girls, accompanied by United States marshals, integrated the two schools: Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost and Gaile Etienne entered McDonough 19 and Ruby Bridges entered William Frantz Elementary.
While Bridges’ mother believed this was an opportunity to make a difference, her father had some reservations including fear for his child’s safety. In an article published in a March 2000 edition of Guideposts, Bridges wrote: “My mother was all for it. My father wasn’t. We’re just asking for trouble, he said. He thought things weren’t going to change, and Blacks and Whites would never be treated as equals. Mama thought I would have an opportunity to get a better education if I went to the new school – and a chance for a good job later in life. My parents argued about it and prayed about it. Eventually my mother convinced my father that despite the risks, they had to take this step forward, not just for their own children, but for all Black children.”
Bridges also remembered that on November 14, 1960, that first day of school, the federal marshals drove the car in which she and her mother travelled the five blocks to the new school. While in the car, one of the marshals explained that when they got to the school two of the marshals would walk in front and two behind the mother and child for protection on both sides.
She wrote that as the car pulled up to the school her mother said to her: “Ruby Nell, don’t be afraid. There might be some people upset outside, but I’ll be with you.” That was the only preparation she received before being confronted by a vicious mob of White men and women as she and her mother hurried up the stairs between the four marshals. Walter Cronkite reported the incident for the evening news and Americans witnessed the horrible scenes of mostly White women in a murderous frenzy because one small child entered a school where their children attended but the words that were screamed at that child were muffled.
In his travelogue, Travels with Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck who witnessed the scene on November 14, 1960 at William Franz Elementary School wrote: “No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene. On television the sound track was made to blur or had crowd noises cut to occur. But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate. In a long and unprotected life I have seen and heard the vomiting of demoniac humans before. Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow?”
Because of the angry mob Bridges did not get to class on that first day; she and her mother spent the day in the principal’s office, where they witnessed furious White men and women taking their children out of the school.
Bridges wrote of her recollections from that day and the following day: “We spent that whole day sitting in the principal’s office. Through the window, I saw White parents pointing at us and yelling, then rushing their children out of the school. In the uproar I never got to my classroom. The marshals drove my mother and me to school again the next day. I tried not to pay attention to the mob. Someone had a Black doll in a coffin, and that scared me more than the nasty things people screamed at us.”
On the second day she did enter a classroom because one teacher agreed to teach her even though no White parents would allow their children to sit in the classroom with her. Bridges spent her entire grade one year protected by federal marshals, she was the only child in the classroom and she was never allowed to leave the class even for recess.
Meanwhile, the White mob, mostly women, continued to riot outside the school, swearing, throwing objects and threatening death to the six-year-old. (See video at: www.youtube.com/watch?feature=iv&annotation_id=annotation_517127&v=u3CkNBZBVuM).
It is almost unbelievable that the women, many of them mothers of children the same age as the then six-year-old Bridges, vowed to murder the child simply because she entered the same school as their children. One woman promised to poison Bridges, which prompted the decision to not allow her to eat anything that was not prepared at home.
The family suffered repercussions because of their decision to have their child integrate the all-White school. Abon Bridges was fired from his job and his parents, who were tenant farmers in Mississippi, were thrown off the land by the White farmer/owner for whom they had worked for 25 years.
The family received a great deal of support from the African-American community in their New Orleans neighbourhood. Speaking of the support the family received, during an interview aired on PBS, Bridges said: “I don’t think that my parents could have gone through what they did without the whole community coming together. We had friends that would come over and help dress me for school. Even when I rode to school, there were people in the neighborhood that would walk behind the car. I actually didn’t live that far from school, and so they would actually just come out and walk to school with me.”
In 1999, Ruby Bridges Hall established the Ruby Bridges Foundation to “promote the values of tolerance, respect and appreciation through educational programs”. One of the projects she plans is the repair and restoration of the William Frantz Elementary School which was damaged in the Hurricane Katrina disaster. She hopes to re-open the school in 2012 with a Civil Rights Museum as part of it.
As the Honorable Robert “Bob” Nesta Marley sang: “We’re the survivors, the Black survivors.”