Story and photos by Kasey Jackson
Ruby Bridges is filled with hope and strength. It’s appropriate, after all, for a woman who changed the course of history by walking up the steps to attend her first day of school.
But simple it was not. Quite the contrary.
Walking up those steps, Ruby Bridges was about to integrate the William T. Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was about to become the first black child to attend this all-white school. The year was 1960.
More than 50 years later, standing at the bottom of those same steps, next to the historical marker that tells of what happened here, Ruby talks about history, memories and what she hopes for not only her former neighborhood and school, but the entire world.
Ruby says that as a 6-year-old, she wasn’t aware of what was happening around her during those chaotic days. A court order had called for New Orleans schools to desegregate, and Ruby was one of six black children who had passed a test that allowed her to attend an all-white school.
She remembers the U.S. marshals escorting her from her home all the way to her classroom every single day, but she says at the time she didn’t really know why. At first she thought it was a Mardi Gras parade because there were policemen, and people were throwing things.
And there was lots of yelling.
What she didn’t know is that those people were yelling at her. And they were yelling horrible, awful things. But she didn’t know anything about racism. She just knew things felt … different.
“I distinctly remember meeting my teacher, Mrs. (Barbara) Henry, for the first time,” she says. “I remember her walking in and me thinking that she’s white, and I had never seen a white teacher. Before that, everybody in my classroom looked like me. My teacher looked like me, the principal, the people who worked at the school. I didn’t know what to expect from Mrs. Henry. She looked exactly like all the people I had encountered standing outside the school, screaming. People who had walked past the principal’s office the day before, pointing at me and shouting. Faces really angry about something. That’s what I remember. But here she was, and I realized that she looked exactly like everybody else but she was not like them. She was, to me, the nicest teacher I had ever had—until then or since.”
This was Ruby Bridges’ introduction to racism—and it was done directly in the national spotlight. It would shape who she was to become.
“You can come into the world and have an old soul,” she says. “I think you can have a gift. Definitely I was an old soul. I do honestly believe this is my purpose, to keep talking about how far we’ve come and how much we need to do. I’m doing what I was brought here to do.”
Ruby doesn’t like the question, “Have we made any progress at all?” She’s quick to say, emphatically, that “yes, absolutely,” we have made great strides in race relations. To even question if we have is to discount all the work of people like herself, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and countless others who fought for the advancement of civil rights and equality for all.
“It’s so personal for me,” she says. “I think about what I do, and what people like me are doing and have done. I think about King. I think there had to be days where he was so discouraged and didn’t want to get up and go out there. He knew he was putting his family in danger. I think when you are a person like he was, it’s not a job. It’s a calling. And you can’t turn your back on it. It weighs very, very heavily on you.”
But here’s where her thoughts might surprise you: It’s not just about race. She’s passionate and direct when explaining the problem isn’t black or white—the problem is actually deeper than the color of our skin.
“The reason why we are where we are today is, in part, because that happened to me over 50 years ago,” she says. “This should be a closed conversation by now. I didn’t know anything about racism. Yes, my parents knew. We grew up in a racist society and environment. But the kids didn’t know that. My parents and grandparents, they kept that to themselves. So for me, when I stepped into that school and all of that was going on, that was very strange and puzzling. And then to have a little boy look at me and say, ‘I can’t play with you. My mom said don’t play with you because you’re a nigger.’ Well, all I was looking for was someone to play with. I want kids to know that racism has nothing to do with them. Everyone comes into this world with a clean start. My son came up with the slogan for the Ruby Bridges Foundation: ‘Racism is a grown-up disease. Let’s stop using kids to spread it.’ So my message to kids is this has nothing to do with you. Because that little boy wanted to play with me. He absolutely did.
“I want adults to understand that we are responsible for where we are right now. And now we’re all having the same conversation about how horrible the world is. How dangerous it is.
“I have lost a child. And I still don’t believe it has to do with the color of his skin. I believe there’s an us and a them. But it doesn’t have anything to do with what you and I look like. It’s good and evil. And that’s why we find people lying in the street dead. Evil doesn’t really care what you look like. Evil doesn’t care whether you’re white or black. It’s whether you open yourself up to it. And if evil doesn’t care, it uses one of us to do what we see being done today—in a church sitting with somebody for an hour and then getting up and shooting nine people. Going into a school and shooting 20 babies. That’s evil. That has nothing to do with the color of that person’s skin. The person I feel that stood over my son and shot him, he looked just like my son. But that was evil.
“What we are faced with is good and evil. And we need to understand that and stop paying attention to what we look like. If you are good, then I want you as a neighbor. I want you on my team. I’ll look out for your kids, you look out for mine. I don’t care what you look like. We have to stop buying into that racist way of thinking, and start to take care of one another.”
Ruby Bridges travels a lot, speaking to children and adults about her story. Some students recognize her from their studies or from seeing a movie about her or reading “The Story of Ruby Bridges,” written by her child psychologist, Robert Coles. She speaks to groups for almost an hour and then, her favorite part, answers questions at the end. “Did you ever make any friends?” “Why did that lady have a coffin with a black baby doll in it?” Sometimes she’s moved to tears, often turning her back or putting her head down so the kids don’t see her becoming emotional.
But she loves what she does. And she believes in the power of sharing her story—of telling her story so that history gets it right. But also because she believes there’s so much hope in our younger generations.
“I just believe that good will always, always conquer over evil,” she says. “I think there’s way more good than evil in this world. Let’s stop dividing ourselves. Let’s stop fighting this battle alone. Let’s come together. Because there’s a much bigger issue going on, and it’s consuming all of us. And we know that.
“I think I see a hope that most people don’t. I do honestly know that if we’re going to get past our racial differences, it’s not going to come from us. It’s going to come from our kids. There’s been huge progress. Sacrifice. But the question we need to ask ourselves is ‘what have I done?’ Because so many people in my life have stepped up.
“I’m proud of my parents for what they did. And if Barbara Henry hadn’t wanted to teach me, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. I don’t think I would be the same person. I wouldn’t have been so open-minded or open-hearted.
“The lesson I took away in that classroom in first grade is that she looks exactly like them, but she’s not. So I can’t look at anybody and judge them that way. That’s what I left with. That’s what I carry with me every day. That’s what I want my kids to know. For me, there’s much, much more at stake than just what we look like.”
Ruby Bridges is filled with hope and strength.
Exactly what the world needs now.
This interview originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of Kiwanis magazine.