Ruby Bridges was just a little girl when armed federal marshals walked her into her New Orleans elementary school for her first day of kindergarten. She was so innocent, she thought the screams from the angry crowds were part of some sort of Mardi Gras celebration.
She spent the day in the principal’s office. All the white parents had pulled their children from school. She didn’t have a teacher until one woman volunteered and Ruby spent the entire year as the only child in that teacher’s class.
The image of Ruby — who had the challenge of integrating a white school set squarely upon her small shoulders simply because she was smart enough to pass a challenging entrance exam — was immortalized in 1964 in a painting by Norman Rockwell. His famous portrait “The Problem We All Live With,” depicted the girl in her Sunday best, walking innocently between uniformed men whose job it was to protect her as she walked into school.
Whether that child was brave, Ruby Bridges hardly remembers. But when we spoke by phone this week, it was clear that the woman surely is.
She has devoted her life to making sure people remember the ugly hatred that was spewed upon her during her first year at William Frantz Elementary School. On Wednesday, she will share her story with students, staff and visitors at Niagara University as part of the school’s Martin Luther King Day celebrations.
She and I had a conversation I won’t soon forget. We talked about many things, including what it’s like to be the subject of a Disney movie, about meeting President Barack Obama and about her grandson who, as a child, was bullied in his nearly all black elementary school for being “too white.”
Ruby Bridges is a civil rights icon, but that role means a lifetime of standing before large audiences and recalling the devastating hatred that pockmarked her childhood. It means undergoing relentless media interviews with reporters asking pretty much the same questions over and over, and it means having to keep the dark stories of her childhood in the forefront of her mind by telling them again and again to audiences who need to hear it.
I asked her whether she would give it all up to have had a normal life.
“Right now, I think I would have to say ‘no,’” she said. “It has not been an easy journey, I will tell you that, but I do know how important it is. I feel good about how kids put themselves in this little girl’s shoes and see her as a hero.”
I asked what it was like to have her story portrayed in a Disney movie. She worked on the set for about eight weeks as a consultant while the film, “Ruby Bridges,” was made.
She recalled walking onto the set as they were shooting a scene where the little girl looks out the window of a car and sees the angry crowds.
“I stood there and all of a sudden, here comes the car,” Ruby told me, describing how she and the girl caught each other’s eyes. “This chill kind of came over me. It was like literally watching your life passing by.”
I asked her if she was angry about what was done to Ruby Bridges, the child.
“I’m not angry about it,” she said. “I’m more angry about the fact that now, as an adult, we are still doing that to children.”
Despite the challenges of her life, there are perks to being the grown Ruby Bridges. She had the chance to meet Obama when the Norman Rockwell painting was loaned to the White House to mark the 50th anniversary of her first day of school.
There were only about 10 people in the room when the president came in and she reached out to shake his hand.
“He put his hands on his hips and said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me,’ and then he put his arms around me and whispered in my ear, ‘It is such an honor to have you here,’” she said.
People in the room were tearing up at the meeting of two such significant Americans, one who was the icon of civil rights and the other the first African-American president.
“It’s wasn’t just he and I meeting,” she said, “It was time and history.”
The little girl lives on through the grown Ruby Bridges.
“Most of my life is driven by that little girl,” she said. “It’s almost like she keeps saying, ‘if you just explain it to them the way that I’m telling you, they’ll get it.’”
Ruby Bridges is speaking at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Russell J. Salvatore Dining Commons at Niagara University in Lewiston. The event and others are sponsored by NU’s Office of Multicultural Affairs and is free and open to the public.
IF YOU GO
Activities coordinated by Niagara University’s Office of Multicultural Affairs in observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are as follows:
• Today — Screening of the film, “Ruby Bridges,” at Dunleavy Hall, Room 127. (7 p.m.)
• Wednesday — Keynote Speaker: Ruby Bridges in Niagara University’s Russell J. Salvatore Dining Commons. (5 p.m.)
For more information, please contact NU’s Office of Multicultural Affairs at 286-8510 or email@example.com.