Wisdom From A Trailblazer: Ruby Bridges Talks Racism In Education

In 1960, six-year-old Ruby Bridges made history when she integrated a New Orleans elementary school under the escort of US Marshals. She is widely known as the first African-American to attend an all-white school in the South. In our occasional "Wisdom Watch" series, host Michel Martin speaks with Bridges about her experience and about her spearheading of the launch of New Orleans’ first-ever children's book festival this weekend.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, music for the season just in time for the first night of Hanukkah. We find out what kind of music inspires the head of a new museum of American Jewish history. That is in just a few minutes.

But, first, a wisdom watch conversation. That's where we hear from those who've made a difference with their lives and work. Today we turn back the clock half a century ago to 1960, when six-year-old Ruby Bridges, along with her mother and four federal marshals walked past a mob of angry protestors and into William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Here's a clip from the television movie "Ruby Bridges."

(Soundbite of film, "Ruby Bridges")

Unidentified Man: Wait till I open the door before you get out. We'll get behind you. Two men in the front car will walk in front of you. We'll all go in the building together. Stay between the four of us and do not look back. No matter what happens, don't look back at the crowd.

(Soundbite of protesting)

MARTIN: Since then, for generations of Americans, she has become a symbol and a role model for others who have taken that kind of long walk for freedom. Recently, New Orleans mayor, Mitch Landrieu honored Ruby Bridges for her life and role in the Civil Rights Movement. And this coming Saturday, December 4th, she will launch the first children's book festival in New Orleans.

We wanted to talk to her about all of that so she was kind enough to join us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. With us now, Ruby Bridges, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. RUBY BRIDGES (Chair, Ruby Bridges Foundation): Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You know, it's very hard for me to look at that film or to see that famous Norman Rockwell painting based on your experience, "The Times We All Live In."(ph) And I think many people probably have that experience, without thinking of my own children who are about that age. I'm thinking about what it would've been like for them to have to walk to school through a screaming mob. What was that like that first day?

Ms. BRIDGES: Well, for me, being six years old, I really wasn't aware of what was going on. I mean the only thing that I was ever told by my parents that I was going to attend a new school and that I should behave.

MARTIN: What did you think was going on? What did you think all these people were hollering about?

Ms. BRIDGES: Well, you know, living here in New Orleans, you know, all kids are accustomed to Mardi Gras. You know, that's a huge celebration where, you know, tons of people come out into the middle of the street and they're screaming and shouting and waving their hands. And that's exactly what it looked like that day.

So for me I remember being in the car and taking this very short drive to my new school, but the minute I turned the corner and saw them and heard them, I thought I had stumbled into the middle of a Mardi Gras parade.

MARTIN: After a certain point, though, things had to set in that this is not a good thing. Did that point ever come that year?

Ms. BRIDGES: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: Or did that come later?

Ms. BRIDGES: No, it came. I have to say that throughout the whole year I was really very curious about why this school seemed so different. I mean, even the first day I remember being rushed into the building and taken directly to the principal's office where my mom and I sat most of the day and most of those people that were outside in the crowd, they rushed in behind us. And as I sat there behind these glass windows, I remember seeing them pass the windows and point at me and they were shouting and their faces seemed really angry about something.

But, again, I didn't know that it was because of me. And what they were actually doing is going into every classroom and pulling out every child. And then by the time I got back the second day and was escorted to my classroom, the building was totally empty. And I remember thinking, you know, my mom has brought me to school too early. There's no one here. But that went on for months. Being in an empty classroom just my teacher and myself, I constantly was trying to figure out why was I the only child in the whole school.

MARTIN: Were you ever afraid?

Ms. BRIDGES: There were times when I was afraid because on occasion the crowd would bring a box, and this box was actually a baby's coffin. And they would put this black doll inside of the coffin. And so I would have to cross the picket line where they would walk up and down the sidewalk in front of the school, and I would have to pass the box. And I used to have nightmares about the box. So those are the days that I distinctly remember being really, really frightened.

MARTIN: What about the second year? We think so much about those first days and the fact that, you know, you were essentially alone in the school for the whole first year. What about the second year?

Ms. BRIDGES: Well, the second year - you know, let me back up. The first year, as time went on, the crowds got smaller and smaller. But they lasted the whole year. By the time I got back to school for second grade, the crowds were gone. I remember going directly back to what I thought was my classroom, and it wasn't my class anymore. There was another teacher in the class, and the class was decorated in a different way, and I was escorted to a different class. And by the time I got to what had become my class, it was a mixed class of kids, still predominantly white, but there were some other African-American kids in my class.

And so for me, second grade was so different, that I remember thinking that maybe I - it was all a dream because no one talked about it. And my teacher was gone, and it seemed like it didn't even happen.

MARTIN: Wow. I understand exactly what you're saying. It sounds like it was just all this strange dream. And so for the rest of your time, was school pretty good, normal school stuff? You know, you like some teachers, don't like others, some kids are nice, some kids are mean? Or were there - or did you always feel like you were that girl?

Ms. BRIDGES: I always felt that way sort of in my own mind, that I don't think anyone else felt that way because it was a story - or I should say an event that had taken place, and it was over and pretty much buried. And nobody talked about it. My family - my mother and father had gone through such a hard time that by the time I graduated from sixth grade, they were separated.

So I grew up with no one really knowing who I was and knowing anything about that event. It wasn't discussed in my household. It wasn't discussed in junior high or high school. It was over and dead and buried.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We are speaking with Ruby Bridges. In 1960, she was the first black child to walk into William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, taking the first step to integrate Louisiana schools and, of course, her long walk was captured in this iconic Norman Rockwell painting called "The Times We All Live In." And it's also the subject of television, movies and books and, of course, including her own memoir, "Through My Eyes."

Now, I want to talk about the fact that you're still involved in education. You go around and you speak to groups and you talk to children's groups. And now you're involved the First New Orleans Children's Book Festival with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his wife Cheryl. And I want to talk a little bit about sort of issues in education right now. First, though, tell us about the book festival and why you wanted to get involved in it.

Ms. BRIDGES: I've been traveling across the country now for, I don't know, probably 18 years, since 1994 and '95, when the first book was published. And what I found was that, you know, history just isn't being taught the way that history actually happened. And it's just like my story - I mean, not until my books were published were kids really familiar with my story. I think everyone knew about the Norman Rockwell painting, but no one knew the story behind it.

And so, you know, my quest has been sharing those stories - not just my story, but so many other stories that kids are not learning in schools. And so I've participated in so many book festivals across the country. And I thought, well, you know, we here in New Orleans have a festival for everything you can imagine, but we had not had a festival for kids to celebrate reading and literacy. And so it was something that I really wanted to do, and I thought this was a great opportunity to try and commemorate and celebrate the 50th anniversary. So I approached the first lady, Cheryl Landrieu, and asked her if she would be willing to host it with me. And she was so excited, and so here we are. You know, it's going to happen.

MARTIN: One of the things, though, that's so much a part of the conversation now is you're talking about the fact that kids aren't learning this history in school. A lot of people wonder what they're learning it all. There are two kind of parallel dialogues going on. One is that, you know, the whole reason that people wanted integrated schools was not just because they wanted to go to school with people of different races, but because of - they wanted to end the political invisibility that came with segregation. They wanted access to the same schools, the same textbooks, good facilities as the white kids had, and integration was seen as the way to achieve it.

Now there are some people who are saying, you know what? Forget all that. We put all this effort into access and integration and so forth. The real issue is: What are kids learning? And it doesn't matter if they learn in all-black or Latino or all-white schools. It matters that they are learning. What you have to say about that?

Ms. BRIDGES: Well, I guess the question would be, you know, are they really getting the same opportunities? Somehow, schools are still segregated. I mean, are they really getting the same opportunities in those different schools? Unless you have an opportunity to go into every school across the country, you'll really never know what one school has to offer, you know, opposed to what some other school offers.

MARTIN: Do think that integration has intrinsic value?

Ms. BRIDGES: I do. I really do. I could be wrong. I don't really know. I'm not an educator. But I've spent a lot of time in schools these past 18 years, and I've gone to some schools where, you know, there's only eight, 10 kids in the class and there's a laptop on every desk and, you know, there's two, maybe three teachers in the classroom.

And then I've gone in some schools where the windows are broken out and it's snowing, and kids are sitting there with jackets on. And it was just, you know, I thought about it and I thought to myself, oh, my God. If you really think about where our next leaders are going to come from, from these two totally different environments - I mean, even if you have a black or a Hispanic child in one of those schools with the windows broken out, and even if they really, really want the best education they can get and they're a straight-A student, they will still have to have someone that would be willing to open the door for them and show them where those opportunities are.

And so I think that's really, really important. I mean, it doesn't really matter to our kids with their friends look like if you start really early. And I do believe that there's a segment of population of us as parents who really want to get past our racial differences.

I mean, I meet people all the time, and there are people out there who really want us to get past our racial differences. And if you build a first-class school, an environment that you say, you know, will be diverse, we're going to devote so much attention to diversity and teaching them values and having them learn side-by-side, I do believe that that somehow will help to close the gap. And what we really need to do at that point is then create other models across the country of those same kinds of schools.

MARTIN: And you've been very generous with your time, and we appreciate it. Before we let you go, we always like to end by asking: Do you have any wisdom to share?

Ms. BRIDGES: Well, I don't know if you call it wisdom, but, you know, for me, since we're talking about that experience in 1960, I always say the lesson that I took away is the same lesson Dr. King tried to teach us before he was taken away from us: you absolutely cannot judge a person by the color of their skin. You have to allow yourself an opportunity to get to know them. And racism is something that we, as adults, have kept alive. We pass it on to our kids. None of our kids come into the world knowing anything about disliking one another. And that's the wisdom that I took away from that experience, and that is the wisdom that I pass on to kids across the country.

MARTIN: Ruby Bridges leads the Ruby Bridges Foundation. On December 4th, she will launch the First Annual New Orleans Children's Book Festival. She was recently honored by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu on the 50th anniversary of her historic walk to integrate Louisiana schools, and she was kind enough to join us from member station WWNO.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. BRIDGES: Thanks for having me.

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