In 1960, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges began her first day of school at William Franz Elementary in New Orleans, escorted by four federal marshals. Before entering her classroom, she faced a shouting mob of protesters, who paraded, among other things, a baby coffin with a black doll inside.
Unbeknownst to Bridges, she was the first black child to attend a white school in Louisiana. The experience changed Bridges' life, and eventually led the civil rights advocate to Louise Archer Elementary School on Wednesday, June 8.
Third-grade teacher Sara Kirkpatrick's class learned about this moment in history during a unit on civil rights. "We've read her books and studied her because she represents heroism and bravery," said Kirkpatrick. "She is important to our history."
Louise Archer student Jennifer Riebling, 9, contacted the Ruby Bridges Foundation and requested a presentation after writing a report on Bridges' role in helping to desegregate schools across America.
Accepting the invitation, Bridges gave a two-hour, interactive presentation on June 8 to Louise Archer's third- and fourth-graders.
"This is my career," Bridges said. "I give speeches in schools throughout the country. My presentation is an oral history lesson. The children will learn about the civil rights movement, racism, diversity and the importance of having respect for one another."
Assessing present-day America, Bridges said that racial segregation is still an issue, though it stems less from race and more from economic status. "Racism has no place in our children's minds and hearts," she said. "I advise them to develop friendships."
Bridges, 49, described her youth by illustrating to the children that racism is not ancient history, and she was alienated not too long ago.
"I am no Rosa Parks," she joked. By asking a lot of questions, having the children close their eyes and imagine her situation, and even by involving the young audience in role-playing, Bridges kept the presentation active. Videos and photographs helped the children visualize the names and places in Bridges' story.
THE STUDENTS were taken through the process of changing unfair laws, while encountering such obstacles as stubborn governors. Among the solutions the children suggested for dealing with stern legislators were telling the president, suing the government and starting World War III. With Bridges' guidance, the students ultimately chose to go to the Supreme Court and prevailed with the decision that "separate but equal" is unconstitutional.
However, in 1960, Louisiana's governor did not agree with the federal decree, and 100 black families in the community had to volunteer their 6 year olds to integrate into white schools to fight his opposition.
Restricting black access into white schools, the governor devised a difficult intelligence test to ensure all the volunteers would fail. Six girls passed the test, which inspired proud cheers from the Louise Archer females. The chosen six were divided into two groups of three, and the two other girls in Bridges' group forfeited their integration endeavor which left her alone on her first day.
Upon Bridges' entrance, parents rushed in the school and evacuated their white children. She was the only child in William Franz Elementary for an entire year, interacting only with her teacher Barbara Henry. Threatened to be killed and poisoned, Bridges ate lunch by herself at her desk. Federal marshals escorted her to the bathroom, and any other children were hidden from her.
Bridges' perseverance paid off when the following year, the students returned and the school was integrated. Her history-changing experience is illustrated in Robert Coles' children's book "The Story of Ruby Bridges," which Louise Archer students read. Bridges offers her own personal account in her book, "Through My Eyes," which she signed after the speech.
Although Kirkpatrick has not noticed racial segregation at Louise Archer, she believes that meeting Bridges is itself meaningful for her third-graders. "The most important thing is for the kids to see a new perspective," she said. "I want them to remember her bravery."
Riebling expressed her appreciation for Bridges' courage. "What she did is very important because it changed schools," Riebling said. "Things wouldn't be as fun because some of my best friends are [of] different races."
Her classmate Matt Cohen, 9, agreed. "I learned to always give someone a chance," he said.
Looking into the sea of Louise Archer students, Bridges was happy to note the diversity. "When I look at you, I see lots of different faces," she said. "I like to say you look like a bag of M&M's."