Remember little Ruby Bridges? For some reason, I hadn’t remembered her, but I was greatly impressed when last fall I saw “Ruby Bridges,” the 1998 movie about her and what she did in 1960. This week she celebrates her 65th birthday.
What Ruby Did
Ruby Bridges was born on September 8, 1954, in southern Mississippi. In 1957 her family moved to New Orleans, and three years later it was time for her to start to elementary school.
Even though this was six years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in which the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, up until the fall of 1960 schools were still segregated in New Orleans.
That year, however, a judge ordered four black girls to go to two white elementary schools. Three went to one of those schools, but Ruby was the only one sent to the William Frantz Elementary School.
So, little Ruby started to school—and what a hectic experience that was for her! Mobs of people gathered to protest, to shout at her, to raise a ruckus. Federal marshals were pressed into service to protect her. How brave little Ruby was!
When the white parents would not allow their children to study in the same room with Ruby, Mrs. Barbara Henry (b. 1932), her wonderful teacher, taught Ruby, and only Ruby, for the next several months.
What Robert Coles Did
I had long known about Robert Coles, one of America’s most prominent child psychiatrists, a longtime Harvard professor, and now the author of more than sixty books. Until I saw the movie “Ruby Bridges,” however, I did not know that Coles (b. 1929) spent many hours with that exceptional child during her first hectic year of school.
Based on those conversations with her, Coles wrote “The Story of Ruby Bridges,” the slim children’s book published in 1995. (You can hear the book read and see the impressive illustrations on YouTube, here.)
“Ruby Bridges” is also the last chapter of Coles’s book Lives We Carry with Us: Profiles of Moral Courage (2010). On the first page of that chapter, Coles writes that Ruby
had to brave murderously heckling mobs, there in the morning and there in the evening, hurling threats and slurs and hysterical denunciations and accusations. . . .
Still, Ruby persisted, and so did her parents” (pp. 204-5).
Coles spent a considerable amount of time with Ruby during that tumultuous school year of 1960-61, and it is quite clear that he was greatly impressed with the brave little girl. His children’s book, re-published on the 50th anniversary of the events of 1960, has been read by tens of thousands of school children across the country and around the world.
What Can We Learn?
1) The importance of faith/prayer, clearly displayed by Ruby and her parents. Coles was basically a religious agnostic, but even he was impressed with Ruby’s faith. Here is the link to a touching 5-minute video titled “Robert Coles Speaks on Ruby Bridges.” (It is well worth watching.)
2) The insidious nature of racism, clearly seen in the animosity expressed toward Ruby. In the video mentioned above, there is actual footage from that time, and it is hard to imagine now just how strong racism was then.
3) The persistence of racism and the ongoing need to oppose it. For example, just last month the office of an African American employee of the U.S. Department of Education was vandalized and a poster depicting Ruby Bridges was damaged.