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Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to attend an all-white public elementary school in the South.
In November 1960, Ruby Bridges was only six years old when her and her mother were first escorted to (and from) the school by four federal marshals. Ruby spent the first day in the principal’s office due to the chaotic scene; large crowds protesting and screaming racial slurs, threatening her, throwing things, and angry parents pulling their children from class.
Ruby continued to be escorted by the federal marshals daily, and she never missed a day of school that year. Only one teacher, Mrs. Henry, agreed to teach her. Ruby was badgered and ostracized but continued to attend. While some people supported Ruby and her family, there were plenty that did not. Her family paid the price for their bravery. Ruby’s father lost his job, her grandparents were evicted from their longtime home and farm and grocery stores banned them from shopping.
As both black and white people in the community persistently showed their support, more African-American students began enrolling and others gradually sent their children back to school (those that had originally pulled their children because of Ruby’s attendance). The protests and civil disturbances began to lessen as the year went on.
In 1964, artist Norman Rockwell honored Ruby Bridges by depicting her in a painting of that first day of school. He titled it, “The Problem We All Live With”.
In 2011, the artwork was temporarily displayed in the West Wing of the White House, just outside of the Oval Office.
Ruby has been a lifelong activist for racial equality and also a child empowerment advocate. She wrote about her experiences and has been part of many speaking engagements over the years. She was a travel agent for 15 years and she formed the Ruby Bridges Foundation in 1999 to promote the values of tolerance, respect and appreciation of all differences.
Video: Ruby Bridges visits with the President and her portrait
Charles Burks, one of the federal marshals that escorted Ruby to and from school for months, remembers those days clearly, “For a little girl six years old going into a strange school with four strange deputy marshals, a place she had never been before, she showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier. We were all very proud of her.”
Video: Ruby Bridges and former U.S. Federal Marshal Charles Burks meet at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis in 2013: