Learn about Ruby Bridges.

Ruby Bridges
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TAKE ACTION

  • Sign up your school, your family or your community group to take part in the annual Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day on Wednesday, November 17. Check to see if your community has chosen to host it on another day. 
  • Share your experience and see how others are participating #RubyBridgesWalktoSchoolDay.
  • Explore these educational resources about Ruby Bridges’ story for students in grades K-8.

On November 14, 1960, a crowd of angry citizens gathered to protest the racial integration of William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. They specifically came to protest against one Black student, Ruby Bridges, who was joining for her first day. Flanked by four federal marshals, she bravely walked into the classroom as onlookers shouted slurs and threats. Photos of the event, along with a Norman Rockwell painting inspired by the day, spread, making Ruby Bridges a national icon for the civil rights movement.

This was part of the backlash against the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, which declared U.S. state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, even if the segregated schools are otherwise equal in quality (Thirteen). After this decision, states had to follow suit. In May 16, 1960, a federal judge demanded the desegregation of New Orleans public schools, starting with the first grade. In response, the Orleans Parish School Board decided to make Black students apply for a transfer to a white school. 137 students applied, and only five were accepted. Six-year-old Ruby Bridges was the only student sent to William Frantz Elementary School (EJI).

When Ruby Bridges arrived in her assigned classroom, she found that she and her teacher were the only two people present; the other white students had been withdrawn from class by their parents. Bridges and her teacher would work together alone for the rest of the school year. And within a week, nearly all of the white students assigned to the newly-integrated elementary schools in New Orleans had withdrawn. The next year, Bridges was joined by seven other Black students (EJI). Ironically, Frantz Elementary is now almost entirely Black, exemplifying a re-segregation of public education (EPI).

The focus of this story should be on the bravery of six-year-old Ruby Bridges, her family, and those that protected her to pursue her right to a fair education. However, what often gets lost in the narrative is the sheer hatred and bigotry of the white mob, often overlooked as a faceless, nameless group of hateful people. 

Many of the participants of the gathering on this fateful day were from an organization called the White Citizens’ Council, a group of white segregationists and supremacists who opposed integration and the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Chapters of the WCC were found throughout the South, not just in Louisiana, and the WCC was popular throughout the white business class (PBS). Many people referred to it as the “uptown Klan,” believing it was a more refined version of the KKK – despite the fact that they had the same values and often shared members. The council was responsible for preventing the integration of schools throughout the South. By the beginning of the 1964-54 school year, “less than 3% of the South’s Black children attended school with white students. In Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina that number remained substantially below 1%” (EJI). 

Outside of Frantz School, the mob shouted insults and carried signs like “all I want for Christmas is a clean white school.” One woman held up a miniature coffin with a black doll in it, which plagued Ruby Bridges with nightmares (The Guardian). Ruby Bridges’ parents lost their jobs, and her grandparents were forced to move off their farm. They weren’t even served at their local grocery store. This “white mob” were neighbors, community members, parents, and colleagues. And decades later, white parents with similar mentalities are rallying to remove Ruby Bridges’ story from their children’s curriculum (MSNBC).

Since then, Ruby Bridges continued to be a public speaker and civil rights activist advocating for racial equity. She is now 67. Her organization, the Ruby Bridges Foundation, works to create more equitable educational opportunities. In a recent public talk with Notre Dame, she emphasized the importance of teaching accurate history in our schools. She noted, “If you leave out part of the truth, you’re not telling the full story. You need the truth, because the truth is a guide for where you need to go” (South Bend Tribune). And to commemorate her walk each year, her nonprofit organizes Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day, when schools can organize walks where students discuss the importance of racial equity and belonging. But whether we participate in an event or not, we can all learn to walk in Ruby Bridges’ legacy and advocate for inclusive education.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • On November 14, 1960, Ruby Bridges made history as the first Black student to integrate a white school in New Orleans.
  • A white mob of protestors gathered that day, representing a broader, coordinated movement ot stop the integration of schools after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.
  • Ruby Bridges has continued her advocacy work to fight for racial equity in schools.

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