Ruby Bridges was born the same year as the Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In New Orleans, where Bridges lived, reluctant school officials devised a test to screen out African American children from attending white schools. While in kindergarten, Bridges took and passed the test, allowing her to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, a mere five blocks from her home. She would be the only African American child there.
Fearing a possible backlash, U.S. marshals were dispatched to New Orleans to protect Bridges. On September 14, 1960, she was escorted to the Frantz School by four marshals. She spent her first day in the principal’s office as white parents took their children out of school.
After days of heated debate, a compromise was struck where the white students would return to school. Ruby would be isolated in a classroom on a floor separated from the other students. None of the teachers but one, Barbara Henry, a native of Boston, Massachusetts, agreed to teach her. For the remainder of the year, Mrs. Henry and Bridges would sit side-by-side going over lessons in the classroom. At recess, they would stay there to play games or do calisthenics. At lunch, Bridges would remain in the room to eat alone.
Life wasn’t any better outside the classroom as the protests by white parents continued. One woman threatened to poison Bridges and another put a black baby doll in a coffin and left it outside the school. Her father lost his job and her mother was banned from shopping at the local grocery store. After the first semester, Bridges began having nightmares. She stopped eating her lunch until Mrs. Henry joined her. Dr. Robert Coles, a child psychologist, volunteered to counsel Bridges during her first year at school. Gradually, her confusion and fear were replaced with some level of normalcy. Occasionally, she was allowed to visit some of her classmates and by her second year, she was attending classes with the other students.
Ruby attended integrated schools all the way through high school and went on to business school to become a travel agent. In 1995, Dr. Coles published The Story of Ruby Bridges recounting his experience with Ruby during that first year. Eventually, Ruby was reunited with Mrs. Henry on the Oprah Winfrey Show and from there she formed the Ruby Bridges Foundation in New Orleans to promote the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences. Bridges’ experience as the first African American student to integrate the South was immortalized in Norman Rockwell’s painting “A Problem We All Live With.”
The Children’s Crusade of 1963
In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the most notorious racist cities in the South, home to one of the most violent chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. Because of this, civil rights leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) made Birmingham a major focus of their efforts to register African Americans to vote and desegregate public facilities. The arrest and incarceration of Martin Luther King Jr., in April, had produced “Letters from the Birmingham Jail,” but had not increased support for integration. Local citizens were too intimidated after a circuit judge had issued an injunction against public demonstration.
SCLC staff member, Reverend James Bevel proposed a radical idea of recruiting students to become involved in the protests. King was reluctant at first, fearing harm to the children, but after much discussion agreed, hoping they would inspire the consciousness of a nation. SCLC members canvassed high schools and colleges for volunteers and began training them in the tactics of non-violence resistance.
On May 2, 1963, thousands of African American students skipped school and gathered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for instructions. They then marched toward downtown on a mission to talk with Birmingham’s Mayor Albert Boutwell about segregation. As the children approached city hall, they were corralled by police and hundreds were escorted to jail in paddy wagons and school buses. That evening, Dr. King went to see the students at the jail with the message, “What you do this day will impact children who have not been born.”
The next day the march picked up again. This time, it was not so peaceful. Police were waiting for them with firehoses, clubs and police dogs. Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor personally ordered his men to attack. Immediately the area exploded with high-pressure water cannons and barking dogs. The children screamed as the water tore at their clothing and flesh. Some were pinned against walls, others were knocked off their feet. The dull thud of nightsticks hitting bone began as police grabbed children and hauled them off to jail. The news media was there recording the entire event.
Young activists are sprayed by high-pressure water cannons in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama. Photo: Getty Images
The protests continued as news stories circulated throughout the nation splashing images of the brutality and generating an outcry of support. Birmingham businesses began to feel the pressure as the entire city was linked with the actions of the police. Finally, city officials met with civil rights leaders and worked out a plan to end the demonstrations. On May 10, city leaders agreed to desegregate business and public facilities.
The Children’s Crusade marked a significant victory for civil rights in Birmingham, telling local officials they could no longer ignore the movement. Yet, the resistance to integration and equality was not over and as the year moved towards September, one of the most diabolical plots against African Americans was about to unfold.