Since Colin Kaepernick began his protest, a little something from the playbook of those who came before him, there has been a great deal of chatter about how he does not respect the military and those who lost their lives for our freedoms here in America. I wonder who fired off that talking point in the conservative news room? But I digress. I personally appreciate the military and have family and friends that have fought in World War II, Vietnam, the Gulf War, etc. But they are not the only ones who have fought for my freedoms as an African-American woman. Blood was shed and pain both mental and physical was endured here on this land for my right to be seen as a whole person and not 3/5ths, my right to vote, my right to quality education, my right to be where my ancestors could not. The war still rages here at home for my freedoms.
Today is Ruby Bridges’s birthday. She is the little girl in this photograph. When I was a child, pictures like this one were ancient history and had little effect on me. But as I have grown older, and as I have come to realize how short a period like 20 years really is (the length of time between this picture and me), history has become more horrifying in its closeness. Rereading Bridges’s story at this age is a distinctly different experience than it was when I first heard it as a little girl. Perhaps it will the be the same with you….
Ruby Bridges was born in Tylertown, Mississippi, to Abon and Lucille Bridges. When she was 4 years old, the family relocated to New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1960, when she was 6 years old, her parents responded to a request from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and volunteered her to participate in the integration of the New Orleans school system, even though her father was hesitant.
In spring of 1960, Bridges was one of six black children in New Orleans to pass the test that determined whether they could go to the all-white school. Two of the six decided to stay at their old school, Bridges went to a school by herself, and three children were transferred to McDonogh No. 19 and became known as the McDonogh Three.
Ruby’s father was initially reluctant, but her mother felt strongly that the move was needed not only to give her own daughter a better education, but to “take this step forward … for all African-American children.” Her mother finally convinced her father to let her go to the school.
… As Bridges describes it, “Driving up I could see the crowd, but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.” Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks later recalled, “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.”
As soon as Bridges entered the school, white parents pulled their own children out; all the teachers refused to teach while a black child was enrolled. Only one person agreed to teach Ruby and that was Barbara Henry, from Boston, Massachusetts, and for over a year Henry taught her alone, “as if she were teaching a whole class.”
That first day, Bridges and her adult companions spent the entire day in the principal’s office; the chaos of the school prevented their moving to the classroom until the second day. On the second day, however, a white student broke the boycott and entered the school when a 34-year-old Methodist minister, Lloyd Anderson Foreman, walked his 5-year-old daughter Pam through the angry mob, saying, “I simply want the privilege of taking my child to school….” A few days later, other white parents began bringing their children, and the protests began to subside. Every morning, as Bridges walked to school, one woman would threaten to poison her; because of this, the U.S. Marshals dispatched by President Eisenhower, who were overseeing her safety, allowed Ruby to eat only the food that she brought from home.
Another woman at the school put a black baby doll in a wooden coffin and protested with it outside the school, a sight that Bridges Hall has said “scared me more than the nasty things people screamed at us.” At her mother’s suggestion, Bridges began to pray on the way to school, which she found provided protection from the comments yelled at her on the daily walks.
Child psychiatrist Robert Coles volunteered to provide counseling to Bridges during her first year at Frantz. He met with her weekly in the Bridges home, later writing a children’s book, The Story of Ruby Bridges, to acquaint other children with Bridges’ story.
The Bridges family suffered for their decision to send her to William Frantz Elementary: her father lost his job, the grocery store the family shopped at would no longer let them shop there, and her grandparents, who were sharecroppers in Mississippi, were turned off their land. She has noted that many others in the community, both black and white, showed support in a variety of ways. Some white families continued to send their children to Frantz despite the protests, a neighbor provided her father with a new job, and local people babysat, watched the house, and walked behind the federal marshals’ car on the trips to school.