On November 14, 1960, a court order mandating the desegregation of schools comes into effect in New Orleans, Louisiana. Six-year-old Ruby Bridges walks into William Frantz Elementary School, accompanied by federal marshals and taunted by angry crowds, instantly becoming a symbol of the civil rights movement, an icon for the cause of racial equality and a target for racial animosity.
The Supreme Court ordered the end of segregated public schools in Brown vs. Board of Education just a few months before Bridges was born, but it was not until after her kindergarten year that the City of New Orleans finally assented to desegregation. African American children in New Orleans were given a test, and only those who passed were allowed to enroll in all-white public schools. Bridges passed the test and became the only one of the six eligible students to go ahead with desegregating Frantz Elementary. Her father opposed the idea at first, but Bridges’ mother convinced him that sending Ruby to Frantz was both right for their daughter and an important moment for all African Americans. Bridges entered the school along with her mother and several marshals on November 14, and images of the small child and her escorts walking calmly through crowds of rabid segregationists spread across the country. Bridges later recalled that she had initially thought the crowds were there to celebrate Mardi Gras.
Bridges did not attend any classes on November 14 due to the chaos outside the school. No other students attended and all but one teacher, Barbara Henry, stayed home in protest of desegregation. It was several days until a white father finally broke the boycott and brought his son to school, and even when the white students returned, they were kept separate from the school’s lone Black student. Henry, whom Bridges said was the first white teacher and “the nicest teacher I ever had,” taught a class consisting of only Bridges for the entire school year. Federal marshaled continued to escort her to school for that time, and crowds chanting racial slurs and making death threats continued to greet Bridges for months.
Bridges’ family suffered enormously—her father lost his job, her sharecropper grandparents were kicked off of their land and her parents eventually separated—but they also received support in the form of gifts, donations, a new job offer for her father, and even pro-bono security services from friends, neighbors and people around the country. The following year, the school became further integrated, and Bridges attended class with both Black and white children without major incident. Today, Bridges remains a household name and an icon of the civil rights movement.