Today marks the birthday of Ruby Bridges (b. September 8, 1954), who, at the age of six, endured a trial that would have crushed most adults in its burdensome heft. In the scheme of history, Bridges was the first black student to attend an all-white elementary school in the American south. But, what what does her attendance to a newly desegregated school mean in the scheme of the life of a six year old? The answer would be a challenge worthy of a true hero.
At the beginning of our heroine’s journey to historical immortality, she is met with a riddle. Her entry into the all-white William Frantz Elementary School (Louisiana) was not an easy task. First, she had to pass a written test, which was purposely designed to be extremely difficult. After passing this test, which was to determine whether or not she was allowed into an all-white school, Bridges and her family had to decide whether or not they wanted to take the treacherous path into the unknown. In a leap of courage, the Bridges family decided to enroll Ruby into William Frantz Elementary, and the family prepared for the army of adversaries who would meet them at the gates.
On November 14th, of 1960, Ruby Bridges made her way to school. She was accompanied by U.S. Marshals, who protected her from an angry mob of protesters. Insults, threats and objects were hurled at the little six year old girl, but, as former U.S. Deputy Marshal Charles Burks recalled, “She never cried. She never whimpered. She just marched along like a little soldier.”
For the first handful of days, most of the white students had been pulled out of school by their parents, but, over time, most students returned to class. Unfortunately, this did not mean there was “integration,” as intended. Bridges was ostracized by students and teachers alike. Only one teacher would take Bridges on as a student– a teacher named Barbara Henry. For the first year, Bridges and Henry sat side-by-side in desks in the classroom, Bridges being the only student.
Every day that Ruby attended school, she was met with peril. On her morning walk to William Frantz Elementary, a woman repeatedly threatened to poison her. Outside of the school, there was another woman who had the morbid inclination to set up a black baby doll in a wooden coffin, for Bridges’ notice. Despite all of the pressure that was being applied on her and her entire family, Ruby Bridges continued her career at William Frantz. In her quest and her struggle for some sort of equality, in this crazy, mixed up world, Bridges was chipping away at fossilized social orders, conquering stagnant prejudice and paving the way for future minority students– all before she left elementary school.
Her story is one of mythic proportion. Like the Greek god Atlas, who was doomed to hold the mass of the sky upon his shoulders for all eternity, Bridges was tasked with holding the weight of racism, fear and ignorance upon her tiny frame. However, unlike Atlas who carried his burden as a punishment for losing a battle of the Titans, Ruby Bridges had won her battle.