Ruby Bridges: Six-Year-Old Hero of the Civil Rights Movement

Ruby Bridges smiling
American Masters

Ruby Bridges, the subject of an iconic painting by Norman Rockwell, was only six years old when she received national attention for bravely desegregating an elementary school in New Orleans, Louisiana. In her pursuit of a quality education during a time when African Americans were treated as second-class citizens, little Ruby managed to become a civil rights hero.  

First Years

Ruby Nell Bridges was born on September 8, 1954, in a cabin in Tylertown, Mississippi. Her mother, Lucille Bridges, was the daughter of sharecroppers and had little education because she worked in the fields. Lucille sharecropped with her husband, Abon Bridges, and father-in-law until the family moved to New Orleans. There, Lucille worked night shifts so she could take care of her family during the day while Abon worked as a gas station attendant.

School Desegregation

In 1954, just four months before Ruby was born, the Supreme Court ruled that legally-mandated segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment, making it unconstitutional. But the landmark court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, didn’t lead to immediate change. Schools in the mostly Southern states where segregation was enforced by law, often resisted integration, and New Orleans was no different.

Ruby Bridges had attended an all-black school for kindergarten, but as the next school year began, New Orleans' all-white schools were required to enroll black students. Ruby was one of six black girls in kindergarten who were chosen to be the first such students. The children had been given both educational and psychological tests to ensure they could succeed.

Her family was not sure they wanted their daughter to be subjected to the backlash that would occur upon Ruby’s entrance into an otherwise all-white school. Her mother, though, became convinced that it would improve the child's educational prospects. So, she talked her husband into allowing Ruby to take the risk of integrating a white school for “all black children.”

Integrating William Frantz Elementary

On that November morning in 1960, Ruby was the only black child assigned to the William Frantz Elementary School. The first day, a crowd shouting angrily surrounded the school. Ruby and her mother entered the building with the help of four federal marshals and spent the day sitting in the principal’s office.

By the second day, all the white families with children in the first-grade class had withdrawn them from school. In addition, the first-grade teacher had opted to resign rather than teach an African American child. An educator named Barbara Henry was called to take over the class. Although she did not know it would be integrated, Henry supported that arrangement and taught Ruby as a class of one for the rest of the year.

Henry did not allow Ruby to play on the playground, for fear for her safety. She also forbade Ruby from eating in the cafeteria due to concerns that someone might poison the first grader.

Ruby's integration of William Frantz Elementary School received national media attention. News coverage of her efforts brought the image of the little girl escorted to school by federal marshals into the public consciousness. Artist Norman Rockwell illustrated Ruby's walk to school for a 1964 Look magazine cover, titling it “The Problem We All Live With.”

When Ruby began second grade, the anti-integration protests at William Frantz Elementary continued. More African American students had enrolled in the school, and the white students had returned. Barbara Henry, Ruby’s first-grade teacher, was asked to leave the school, prompting a move to Boston. As Ruby worked her way through elementary school, her time at William Frantz became less intense, and she spent the rest of her education in integrated settings.

The Toll of Ruby's Efforts

Ruby's entire family faced reprisals because of her integration efforts. Her father was fired after white patrons of the gas station where he worked threatened to take their business elsewhere. Abon Bridges would mostly remain jobless for five years. In addition to his struggles, Ruby's paternal grandparents were forced off their farm.

Ruby’s parents divorced when she was 12. The African American community stepped in to support the Bridges family, finding a new job for Abon and babysitters for Ruby's four younger siblings.

During this tumultuous time, Ruby found a supportive counselor in child psychologist Robert Coles. He had seen the news coverage about her and admired the first-grader's courage, so he arranged to include her in a study of black children who had desegregated public schools. Coles became a long-term counselor, mentor, and friend. Her story was included in his 1964 classic "Children of Crises: A Study of Courage and Fear" and his 1986 book "The Moral Life of Children."

Adult Years

Ruby Bridges graduated from an integrated high school and went to work as a travel agent. She married Malcolm Hall, and the couple had four sons. When her youngest brother was killed in a 1993 shooting, Bridges took care of his four girls as well. By that time, the neighborhood around William Frantz Elementary had become mostly African American. Due to white flight, the once integrated school had become segregated again, attended largely by low-income black students. Because her nieces attended William Frantz, Ruby returned as a volunteer. She then founded the Ruby Bridges Foundation to help involve parents in their children’s education.

In 1995, psychologist Robert Coles wrote a biography of Ruby Bridges for young readers. Called "The Story of Ruby Bridges," the book thrust Bridges back into the public eye. She appeared on the "Oprah Winfrey Show," where she was reunited with her first-grade teacher Barbara Henry in 1995. Bridges included Henry in her foundation work and in joint speaking appearances.

Bridges reflected on the role that Henry played in her life, and Henry recalled the role that her young pupil played in hers. Each described the other as a hero. Bridges had modeled courage, while Henry had supported her and taught her how to read, which became the student's lifelong passion. Moreover, Henry had served as an important counterbalance to the mobs of racist white people who tried to intimidate Bridges as she arrived at school each day.

Bridges wrote about her experiences integrating William Frantz in 1999's "Through My Eyes," which won the Carter G. Woodson Book Award. In 2001, she received a Presidential Citizens Medal, and in 2009, she wrote a memoir called "I Am Ruby Bridges." The following year, the U.S. House of Representatives honored her courage with a resolution celebrating the 50th anniversary of her first-grade integration.

In 2011, Ruby Bridges visited the White House and then-President Obama, where she saw a prominent display of Norman Rockwell’s painting "The Problem We All Live With." President Obama thanked Bridges for her efforts, telling her, “I probably wouldn’t be here” without her contributions to the civil rights movement.