60 Years Later, Ruby Bridges Tells Her Story In 'This Is Your Time'

Nov 7, 2020
Originally published on November 7, 2020 8:59 am

Ruby Bridges is a real person who became an indelible image of American history.

She was that six year-old girl, painted by Norman Rockwell, who was escorted into school by stout U.S. marshals, when she became the first Black student at the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans on November 14, 1960.

Rockwell depicted her in a light, white dress, holding her schoolbooks and a ruler — and walking by a wall scrawled with a message of hate. 60 years later, she's written a book to tell children her story, and a story of America — Ruby Bridges: This is Your Time.

Bridges recalls that first day, and her teacher, Barbara Henry: "Barbara came from Boston to teach me because teachers actually quit their jobs because they didn't want to teach black kids. I remember the first day meeting her, she looked exactly like the mob outside the classroom. So I really didn't know what to expect from her," Bridges says.

"But I remember her graciously saying, you know, come in and take a seat — and there I was sitting in an empty classroom with her for the whole year, you know, she showed me her heart. Very early on, and I realized that she cared about me, she made school fun, and ultimately I felt safe in that classroom."


Interview Highlights

On being all alone

The first day that I arrived with federal marshals, they rushed me inside of the building. And 500 kids walked out of school that first day and they never returned.

[Making friends] did not come easy because I heard kids, there were days when I would go into this coat closet to hang up my coat and I could hear kids laughing and talking, but I never saw them. Later on, I came to realize that they were being hidden from me in another classroom.

And that was because there were some white parents who actually crossed that picket line and brought their kids to school. But the principal who was part of the opposition, she would hide them. And even though I was complaining — or at least mentioning it to Mrs. Henry, she would never say anything to me, but she was actually going to the principal and saying, if you don't allow those kids to come together, because the law has now changed, then I'm going to report you to the superintendent. And so I think after months of that, we were allowed to come together.

On calling racism a "grownup disease"

None of our babies are born into the world knowing anything about disliking one another, or disliking someone because of the color of their skin. - Ruby Bridges

That was the best way for me to try to explain it to young kids. None of our babies are born into the world knowing anything about disliking one another, or disliking someone because of the color of their skin. Babies don't come into the world like that. And so if babies are not born that way, then we as adults are the ones who are passing it on to them, and we have kept racism alive.

On Vae, a little girl who made a powerful observation

I spent the last 25 years in schools talking to kids all across the country and there are days when, you know, personal issues keep me from feeling like getting up and going out. But almost every time that happened, I would meet someone like Vae, who would help me to understand why I'm doing what I do. And so that story about the M&M's — I was doing a presentation in school and she raised her hand and said, you know, we're all like M&M's. We all look different on the outside, but when you bite into them, we're all the same.

And I remember when she said that I looked at her, and even the teachers that were standing around, you know, you begin to tear up because, it's out of the mouths of babes, you know. She was absolutely right.

On losing a son to violence

Well, you know, that's a parent's worst nightmare. And it never goes away. But when I lost my son, what was reiterated for me — because the person that took my son's life looked exactly like him — I had an opportunity to really think about my work, and what came to mind is that good and evil comes in all shades and colors.

And that evil is not prejudiced, that evil just needs an opportunity to work through you. It made me realize that I had a lot more work to do that all of us, no matter what we look like, we all have a common enemy. And that is evil. If we don't understand that and come together, then evil will win.

This story was edited for radio by Samantha Balaban and Ed McNulty, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ruby Bridges is a real person who became an indelible image of American history. She was the 6-year-old painted by Norman Rockwell, who was escorted into school by stout U.S. Marshals when she became the first Black student at the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, November 14, 1960. She's shown in a light white dress, holding her schoolbooks and a ruler and walking by a wall scrawled with a message of hate. Sixty years later, she's written a book to tell children her story and the story of America, Ruby Bridges' "This Is Your Time."

Ruby Bridges joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

RUDY BRIDGES: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: For those who are new to your story and even those of us who thought we knew it, I was so moved by this story. Could you tell us about your teacher, Barbara Henry?

BRIDGES: Barbara came from Boston to teach me because teachers actually quit their jobs because they didn't want to teach Black kids.

SIMON: Yeah.

BRIDGES: I remember the first day meeting her. She looked exactly like the mob outside the classroom. So I really didn't know what to expect from her. But I remember her graciously saying, you know, come in and take a seat. And there I was sitting in an empty classroom with her for the whole year, you know? She showed me her heart very early on, and I realized that she cared about me. She made school fun, and ultimately I felt safe in that classroom with her.

SIMON: And I'm afraid I didn't quite realize until reading the book, you were, however, all alone in that classroom, weren't you?

BRIDGES: Absolutely. Because the first day that I arrived with federal marshals, they rushed me inside of the building, and 500 kids walked out of school that first day. And they never returned.

SIMON: You know, my favorite picture in the book is Page 33, you with friends a few months into your attendance - young white girls, look to be about your age. You're all smiling. And if I may say this as a father, you look utterly adorable, all of you.

BRIDGES: (Laughter) Yes, we did. But, you know, that did not come easy because I heard kids. There were days when I would go into this coat closet to hang up my coat, and I could hear kids laughing and talking, but I never saw them. Later on, I came to realize that they were being hidden from me in another classroom. And that was because they wore some white parents who actually crossed that picket line and brought their kids to school. But the principal, who was part of the opposition, she would hide them. And even though I was complaining or at least mentioning it to Mrs. Henry, she would never say anything to me, but she was actually going to the principal and saying, if you don't allow those kids to come together, because the law has now changed, that I'm going to report you to the superintendent. And so I think after months of that, we were allowed to come together.

SIMON: You write in the book - I'll quote you - "racism is a grown-up disease." How so?

BRIDGES: That was the best way for me to try to explain it to young kids. None of our babies are born into the world knowing anything about disliking one another or disliking someone because of the color of their skin. Our babies don't come into the world like that. And so if babies are not born that way, then we as adults are the ones who are passing it onto them. And we have kept racism alive.

SIMON: And I'm struck by the youngsters you recount speaking with in in the book. There's a - it seems so simplistic and yet, you know, in a way, it is pretty simple. The little girl - I think her name is Vae - who told you about M&Ms.

BRIDGES: Yes. You know, I spent the last 25 years in schools talking to kids all across the country. And there are days when, you know, personal issues keep me from feeling like getting up and going out. But almost every time that happened, I would meet someone like Vae who would help me to understand why I'm doing what I do. And so that story about the M&Ms - I was doing a presentation in school, and she raised her hand and said, you know, we're all like M&Ms (laughter). We all look different on the outside, but when you bite into them, we're all the same.

SIMON: Wow.

BRIDGES: And I remember when she said that I looked at her, and even the teachers that were standing around, you know, you begin to tear up because...

SIMON: Yeah.

BRIDGES: ...It's out of the mouths of babes, you know? She was absolutely right.

SIMON: Ms. Bridges, I have to ask you about our times now. And note - you have lost a son to violence.

BRIDGES: Yes.

SIMON: There must be no loss greater than that.

BRIDGES: Well, you know, that's a parent's worst nightmare. And it never goes away. But when I lost my son, what was reiterated for me - because the person that took my son's life looked exactly like him - I had an opportunity to really think about my work. And what came to mind is that good and evil comes in all shapes and colors and that evil is not prejudiced, that evil just needs an opportunity to work through you. It made me realize that I had a lot more work to do, that all of us, no matter what we look like, we all have a common enemy. And that is evil. If we don't understand that and come together, then evil will win.

SIMON: Ruby Bridges - her book, "This Is Your Time" - thank you so much for being with us.

BRIDGES: Thank you for having me.

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