‘I want my life to mean something’: Ruby Bridges speaks on school integration, role in history
Nelisha Silva | Monday, November 8, 2021
The Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights hosted American civil rights icon Ruby Bridges as part of its online lecture series “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” on Friday.
The series is led by Dory Mitros Durham, associate director of the Klau Center and leader of the Keough School of Global Affairs’ Racial Justice Initiative, as a response to the acts of police brutality against George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in 2020. Friday’s lecture was hosted in Leighton Concert Hall in DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, with local South Bend middle school students and members of the tri-campus community in attendance.
This event was part of the Klau Center’s celebration of its official dedication Nov. 5. and was also available on Zoom.
Prior to the event, Bridges sat down with The Observer to discuss her life and what it means to her to be immortalized as a six-year-old child in the collective consciousness of America.
Bridges began both the interview and her lecture by sharing her perspective on the first day she integrated a previously all-white school in New Orleans.
“I was six years old and did not have a clue as to what was going on,” Bridges said. “I knew I was going to a new school because I had taken the [entrance] test … only six kids passed. I happened to be one of them.”
Bridges discussed the fact that the entrance test for Black students to attend integrated schools essentially served to keep students in their segregated schools. Over 150 Black students took the entrance exam the same year as Bridges, yet only six passed and were accepted to all-white schools. However, as the school year grew closer, the families of the two students who were to attend school with Bridges changed their minds, leaving her alone at William Frantz Elementary School.
Federal marshals escorted Bridges to and from school each day, guiding her through the angry crowds of protestors who didn’t want her attending an all-white school. Bridges remembers those crowds from attending school and recalls the consequences of her attendance.
“It felt just like I had stumbled into a Mardi Gras parade,” she said. “Once I got inside the building, all of those parents that were outside rushed in and removed their kids. Over 500 kids walked out of school that day because I was there. They did not want their children going to school with a Black child. It left me in an empty classroom in an empty school building for the entire year.”
Despite being in a class of one for the year, Bridges never missed a day of school that year and credits her teacher Barbara Henry with her perfect attendance. She also remembers Henry as being the first white person with whom she had substantial contact.
“The first thing that stuck out to me was that she’s white … she looked exactly like all the people that seemed really angry outside,” Bridges said. “Once I got inside of the classroom, she was just an incredible teacher and she was so nice to me. It felt like it was just her and I and we were in our own little world … She may have looked like [the people outside], but she’s nothing like them … she showed me her heart, and she really shaped who I am today.”
The story of Bridges’ first day of school has been documented in picture books, history books, movies and even in a Norman Rockwell painting. Recently, she published a book titled “This Is Your Time,” written as a letter to the reader. The book is aimed at students and young adults. She recalled that a friend had encouraged her to start writing the letter after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
“I was really trying to figure out what to do and what to say … I couldn’t believe my eyes that this was happening right now because it looked exactly like it did in the 1960s,” she said. “I wanted to talk about what I saw and how it reminded me of what I was going through … I felt like I was happy that [young people] were involved and had taken to the streets, because I honestly feel like if we’re going to ever get past racial differences, it’s going to come from [young people].”
Bridges delivered a message directly to this young generation of activists.
“You all need to understand that you too have a sense of responsibility to make this country better,” she said. “So many times, young people, kids rely on adults, but I was a kid and I knew the thoughts in my head, and I want them to understand that. You do not have to settle for this. This is your country too … I’ve always felt like you all needed something to sink your teeth into to move forward, and this is it. This is your time.”
Her foundation, The Ruby Bridges Foundation, was created to promote respect and equal treatment to people of all races and differences. One of their newest initiatives is the Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day, which is being held Nov. 17 this year in schools across the country. This day is meant to commemorate Bridges’ first day of school on Nov. 14, 1960, and aims to promote youth activism. She hopes that it will become a day of dialogue for students to share their passions and make real change.
When speaking about her desire to work primarily with children, Bridges stressed the importance of recognizing and maintaining the pure heart that all people are born with and reflected on the consequences of teaching racism to children.
“We come into the world with a very unique gift and that is a clean heart, a fresh start in life,” Bridges said. “And when someone tries to take racism and pass it on to you, they’re taking away your innocence.”
The first time she realized the people protesting in front of the school were doing it because of the way she looked, Bridges said, was when a child she wanted to play with called her a racial slur.
“In hindsight, my innocence was gone,” she said.
Additionally, she addressed her hopes for young people to affect change in this country.
“I have faith in young people that you are going to be the ones to change the world … Change is coming,” she said. “But once people see that change is coming, then the fight gets harder. So don’t expect it to be easy. A lot of people before you lost their lives to bring us to where we are now, so I want young people to be hopeful and to know that this really is your world.”
Bridges thinks of her involvement in the civil rights movement as a calling and even though she didn’t choose to integrate an all-white school, as she grew older, she chose to continue fighting to make a difference. Even though she’s grown up since that famous first day of school, she still continues to do the work to eradicate racism in America.
“We have a much bigger enemy than the color of our skin, and that enemy is evil. Evil comes in all shapes and sizes, and while we’re fighting over what we look like, evil is winning,” Bridges said. “I want my life to have meaning. I don’t want my life to have been in vain, I want my life to have a purpose and I’m still working towards that.”