Ruby Bridges, in full Ruby Nell Bridges, married name Ruby Bridges-Hall, (born September 8, 1954, Tylertown, Mississippi, U.S.), American activist who became a symbol of the civil rights movement and who was at age six the youngest of a group of African American students to integrate schools in the American South.
Bridges was the eldest of eight children, born into poverty in the state of Mississippi. When she was four years old, her family moved to New Orleans. Two years later a test was given to the city’s African American schoolchildren to determine which students could enter all-white schools. Bridges passed the test and was selected for enrollment at the city’s William Frantz Elementary School. Her father was initially opposed to her attending an all-white school, but Bridges’s mother convinced him to let Bridges enroll.
Of the six African American students designated to integrate the school, Bridges was the only one to enroll. On November 14, 1960, her first day, she was escorted to school by four federal marshals. Bridges spent the entire day in the principal’s office as irate parents marched into the school to remove their children. On Bridges’s second day, Barbara Henry, a young teacher from Boston, began to teach her. The two worked together in an otherwise vacant classroom for an entire year. Every day as the marshals escorted Bridges to school, they urged her to keep her eyes forward so that—though she could hear the insults and threats of the angry crowd— she would not have to see the racist remarks scrawled across signs or the livid faces of the protesters. Bridges’s main confidants during this period were her teacher and Robert Coles, a renowned child psychologist who studied the reaction of young children toward extreme stress or crisis. Toward the end of the year, the crowds began to thin, and by the following year the school had enrolled several more black students.
Bridges’s bravery inspired the Norman Rockwell painting The Problem We All Live With (1964), which depicts the young Bridges walking to school between two sets of marshals, a racial epithet marking the wall behind them. Her story was also recounted in Coles’s children’s book The Story of Ruby Bridges (1995), which has his conversations with her as its foundation. In 1993 she began working as a parent liaison at Frantz, which had by that time become an all-black school. Bridges also spoke about her youthful experiences to a variety of groups around the country. Her memoir, Through My Eyes, was released in 1999, the same year that she established the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which used educational initiatives to promote tolerance and unity among schoolchildren.