The story of Ruby Bridges shows us that even changes to the law do not mean immediate change to public opinion or social acceptance. It also, however, shows how the actions of one person can (slowly) change our world and our experience. Ruby Bridges highlights to us that while it may take time, persistence and fortitude can result in social change.
Quick summary of the story of Ruby Bridges:
- Ruby Bridges was born the same year the U.S. Supreme Court ended racial segregation in public schools (Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas).
- Ruby took a test in Kindergarten to establish if she would be suitable to attend a white school. Ruby was one of six New Orleans African-American children to pass that test due to its difficulty and alleged attempts to make the test impassable for children.
- As a result, six year old Ruby Bridges desegregated the William Frantz Elementary School in 1960.
- Her parents and U.S. Marshals escorted Bridges to school amidst mob threats. There were people protesting her attendance, throwing things from the crowd, threatening to poison her, etc.
- Students were pulled from the school by parents upset by Ruby’s attendance, and only one teacher agreed to teach Ruby for the first year.
- Barbara Henry taught Ruby in a classroom by herself because further parents had threatened to remove their children from the school should they be put in a classroom with Ruby. She ate lunch with Ruby each day.
- In protest of the family’s actions Ruby’s father and grandfather lost their jobs and Ruby spent her years being escorted to and from the bathroom by Marshals due to ongoing threats to her safety.
- After the first year, where Ruby suffered isolation and hardship, racism and personal threats (often from adults), things at the school settled down somewhat and she was eventually able to graduate from a desegregated high school.
The bravery and strength this little girl demonstrated (now a civil rights activist in her adulthood) is inspiring just in the telling. The story highlights so many positive and negative elements of the human experience. We have all seen the ugliness of people, whether it’s in being bullied and harassed in the playground as a child or watching a violent act in a pub as an adult. We have all been witness to actions that are distressing to see and at times incomprehensible in their cruelty. But not many of us have been put in a place such as where Ruby found herself. To walk with shoulders back and head up high when adults threatened her and told her she had no right to attend the school. Grown men and women threatened a six year old child for accessing a place of education. Grown men and women removed their own children from accessing education at that school in protest. Despite government legislation. Despite changing social trends. Because of their own fear and hatred and misunderstanding. But she continued to go to school. Then, within the space of a year, things shifted. They (slowly) stopped protesting so loudly. The threats lessened for Ruby and she was able to continue at her school.
This story fills me with hope. It tells me that in our societies it can take a very brave person to keep their chin up and keep walking into a difficult environment day after day to slowly but surely influence the way that others act and treat each other. Ruby Bridges wasn’t a social activist when she was six years old. But her mother saw the importance of her attending a public school that would give her the best education she could access and that was important enough to weather hardship, threats, challenges and loneliness for a period of time. Her mother’s tenacity and encouragement and Ruby’s unrelenting pursuit of her own education led to a social change in New Orleans that may have taken many more years to achieve had they not acted.
It is essential that we consider the other side of this argument. It may feel cliched, but I want to be considered as being on the right side of history when I look back on my actions and beliefs. Those people who were fundamentally opposed to a six year old girl attending the same school as their children simply because of the colour of her skin (rightly) shocks and appalls me. That is because I have been raised in a time after we realised socially that it is unacceptable to exclude people on that basis. It is essential to reflect that there are examples today that will seem this shocking to our future selves. Recently it was the vote to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia. To this day it is the continued poor treatment of refugees who have sought asylum in Australia. Continuing open discussions that are based in kindness and understanding are essential to help influence public opinion around human rights issues such as these. It isn’t enough to sit still and feel bad. But it is also not correct to wage war against the ‘other’. We keep our heads high, we walk with purpose and communicate our beliefs respectfully and with poise. The innocence that is a small child’s right to pursue an education regardless of the colour of her skin is a beautiful example that we can all be influenced by.
Thank you to the following websites: