I had often wondered how Ruby Bridges felt in the moment that she first arrived at William Frantz Elementary School in November 1960. If the name isn’t familiar, the image above probably is — as may be the Norman Rockwell painting of a small Black girl walking with an entourage of faceless protectors, passing a wall on which is scrawled a racial slur. Bridges’s arrival at the school on that day marked its integration — a transition that was poorly received by many in the surrounding community.
This was a 6-year-old girl, unwittingly bearing the weight of a sea change in American culture. How did she manage? How did she experience that moment?
For the answer, we can turn to Bridges herself. Last May, she was interviewed about her experience by a group called the Female Lead.
“I knew that I was going to go to a new school,” Bridges, now Ruby Bridges Hall, explained. “I really did not know who the four very tall White men were. They did say U.S. marshals, but that really meant nothing to a 6-year-old.” In another interview, she said she had thought the furious crowd that awaited her that first day was somehow related to Mardi Gras. In the interview from last year, she also recalled that some in the crowd brought a child-sized coffin in which had been placed a small Black doll.
What’s most remarkable about this now is that this was a recent interview with Bridges. She was born in 1954 and is only 67 years old, younger than about 50 million Americans.
I only realized Bridges was still so young a few weeks ago, as I was researching a story about the spate of book bans across the country. In December, for example, a group calling itself “Moms for Liberty” petitioned the Tennessee Department of Education to withdraw a number of books from the school systems’ second-grade curriculum. Among those books were “The Story of Ruby Bridges” by Robert Coles, and Bridges’s own book about her experience: “Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story.”
Bridges was in kindergarten when she experienced furious racist crowds firsthand. Moms for Liberty is worried her story is “not age appropriate” for children two years older.
I was reminded of my realization this week when I came across an interview on the same subject with author Kimberly Jones.
Activist and author @kimlatricejones on what she thinks is the motivation behind critical race theory bans:— The Recount (@therecount) February 7, 2022
“The truth is Ruby Bridges, who integrated school, is only in her sixties … you don’t want your kids, your grandkids, to know that you spit at her.” pic.twitter.com/y41yBCXyWo
“The truth is, Ruby Bridges, who integrated school, is only in her 60s,” Jones said. “So what it is is you don’t want your grandkids to know that you spit at her. … We want to be convinced that it was so long ago. It was last night. It’s today.”
There are millions of Americans who experienced life under segregation, the most obvious recent manifestation of systemic racial prejudice. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is younger than Bob Dylan’s first album. If you wanted to vote in a state election in Texas, you had to pay a poll tax until 1966 — meaning that the era of unrestricted voting in Texas has not been around quite as long as Neil Young’s musical career.
Bridges is a member of the baby boom, the massive surge in new births that followed World War II. The baby boom continues to drive much of American politics and culture, yet this aspect of the boom is often seen as distant. The transition to a true pluralistic democracy in the American South is younger than about 3 in 10 Americans.
It was last night.
Again, this is particularly important to consider in the context of efforts to strip discussion of race out of classrooms. It’s not just that the panic over “critical race theory” is often opportunistic and generally uncoupled from the theory itself. It’s that the emergence of the new consideration of America’s relationship with race that accompanied the Black Lives Matter movement is considering recent, not ancient history. That the burden of proof should be on those who suggest that two centuries of discriminatory burdens placed on Black Americans were completely eradicated in a lifetime rather than on those who suggest that burdens linger. That a celebration of an America that has rejected segregation and embraced Black people fully is a celebration of an America that’s younger than my parents.
It is more complex to acknowledge that Ruby Bridges is still alive than to imagine her as that kid in the black-and-white photo. It is more reassuring to distill the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s message to a warning about being overly attentive to the color of someone’s skin than it is to recognize the way in which skin color still affects both White and Black Americans. It is nicer to assume that intentional efforts to limit Black political power have been eliminated than that they often remain embedded.
There was another quote recently that I thought was important to consider. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) was participating in a ceremony at the Capitol in which one of the first Black men to serve in the House was being honored. Clyburn noted that nearly a century passed between the first eight Black men South Carolina elected to the House and his own election — a century in which Black Americans lost and fought to regain political power.
Clyburn offered a warning: “Anything that’s happened before can happen again.”