Civil Rights Icon Ruby Bridges Has Faith We'll 'Be Better' and 'Get Past Our Racial Differences'
Ruby Bridges doesn’t remember much about the first grade, but one detail remains fresh in her mind: four tall, white U.S. federal marshals escorting her to and from school, through a crowd of more white adults throwing tomatoes and shouting racial slurs in her direction.
“I didn’t know who they were or why they were there, but living in New Orleans, I thought I had just gotten caught up in the middle of a Mardi Gras parade,” Bridges, now 66, tells PEOPLE. “Now we all know that was truly not the case.”
In 1960, at the height of the civil rights movement, Bridges became the first Black child to integrate an elementary school in the American South when she began attending first grade at William Frantz Elementary School in her home state of Louisiana.
Segregationists quickly withdrew their children from the school. Bridges spent the entire school year alone in a classroom with Barbara Henry, the only white teacher willing to instruct her. The change had a quick and vicious impact on her family: Bridges’ father, Abon, lost his job, grocery stores refused to serve her mother, Lucille, and the entire family feared for their safety.
Bridges writes about her experience and the similarities she sees between the civil rights movement during her childhood and recent protests against racism in her new book, This Is Your Time. The book was released Tuesday, the same day Bridges' mom Lucille died at the age of 86.
"Today our country lost a hero. Brave, progressive, a champion for change," Bridges wrote on Instagram. "She helped alter the course of so many lives by setting me out on my path as a six year old little girl. Our nation lost a Mother of the Civil Rights Movement today. And I lost my mom. I love you and am grateful for you. May you Rest In Peace. Lucille Bridges (August 12, 1934 – November 10, 2020)."
Bridges says friends encouraged her to write the book after the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, earlier this year.
“Racism is alive and well,” Bridges says. “But I’ve seen hope in the young people I speak with and see taking to the streets, I totally believe in them and want to remind them that we have to come together, we have to stand together and we have to believe that this country can be better.”
Bridges’ role in the desegregation crisis cemented her status as a civil rights icon. She’s spent her life traveling the country speaking about her experience and established the Ruby Bridges Foundation in 1999 to promote tolerance and cultural understanding.
Her first day of school is captured in Norman Rockwell’s famous 1964 painting, “The Problem We All Live With,” an image frequently used in conversations about racism and racial equality.
Shortly after Sen. Kamala Harris was elected vice president, making her the first woman and woman of color elected to the office, a drawing by artist Bria Goeller showing Harris walking alongside Bridge’s silhouette went viral on social media.
“We had to go through what we experienced in the 1960s to get to where we are today,” Bridges says. “We should have made a lot more progress than we have, but it is being made.”
One of the most obvious signs of progress, Bridges notes, is the protests that followed Floyd’s death against police brutality and racial injustice.
“[Protesters] are all different races, nationalities and they’re all here to move this country forward,” she says. “It’s growing pains and it’s a shame that we have to endure this kind of unrest, but I believe we’re going to be better for it and get past our racial differences because of the young people who understand what happened in the past and want to live in a better world than the one we’re living in today.”
Bridges understands more than most how tragedy can be a catalyst for meaningful change. Her oldest son, Craig, was shot dead on a New Orleans street in 2005.
“The loss of my son actually catapulted me even more into the work that I'd already been doing,” Bridges says. “Evil comes in all shapes and colors and that was really very, very evident to me after losing my son, because the person that took my son's life looked exactly like him.”
She continues: “We can't look at a person and judge them because you never know who will be there to do you harm, and you'll never know who will be there to help you. You can’t just look at them and tell. But no matter what we look like, we have a common enemy: evil.”
Bridges hopes we’ll continue working toward that goal despite the bitter division we’ve seen throughout the 2020 election cycle.
“It shows us how much work we have to do to really come together, but I’m still hopeful,” she says. “There’s more good than evil in the world, and I want people who pick up my book will find that small glimmer of hope and be encouraged to continue the good fight.”
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
• Campaign Zero works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
• ColorofChange.org tries to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.
• National Cares Mentoring Movement provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.
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