It was her first visit back to the cemetery in Tylertown, Mississippi, where she buried her mother, Lucille, in November. Her mother was 86 years old. Lucille Bridges died just four days shy of what would have been the 60th anniversary of the morning she sent then 6-year-old Ruby off to integrate a New Orleans elementary school with this admonition: “You better behave.”
It is that indelible image of Bridges as a little girl flanked by U.S. Deputy Marshalls as she entered William Frantz Elementary School for the first time on Nov. 14. Such was the vitriol and hatred screamed at Bridges from angry mobs as she entered the school, that Norman Rockwell was moved to create a painting as iconic as the moment. “The Problem We All Live With” depicts a little Black girl in a white dress on her way to school. Tomatoes have been thrown at her, and she must walk past a wall scrawled with a racial epithet.
In real life, Bridges survived the hard first year at school and went on to a career as a travel agent that took her around the world. For the last 25 years, she has worked with children across the country carrying a message of anti-racism and inclusion. And so it was bittersweet that on Nov. 10, the day Bridges’ latest book, “This Is Your Time” was scheduled for release, her mother passed away.
“This Is Your Time” is a message to children, born of the pain Bridges felt after George Floyd’s killing, but also of the hope she felt seeing so many young people take to the streets in protests around the world.
Bridges talks with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her past as well as the hope she sees in the actions of today’s children.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Your mother was for you integrating the school, but your father was against it. Why so?
A: My father was against it simply because my father fought in the Korean War. And he would always say that, you know, you could be in the same foxhole with a white soldier fighting for the same country, but you know if you lived, at the end of the day, you couldn’t go back to the same barracks together. You couldn’t eat in the same mess hall together. And he just thought, like, if that didn’t change things, fighting for the same country, next to another soldier and still not being treated as if it was your country, then why send his child to this white school? That wasn’t going to really change anything. And my father passed away before he saw the fruits of all of our labors and sacrifices.
My mother was a little bit different. She wanted her kids to have opportunities that she didn’t have. Education was truly one of those things that they were not allowed to participate in. They were sharecroppers. And so, when it was time to get the crops in, schooling was secondary.
Q: Who instilled that drive in your mom, then, that sense of fight?
A: Probably my grandmother. My grandmother was a very determined person as well — an entrepreneur in spirit. She was a sharecropper as well, but my grandmother, once they left Mississippi and came to Louisiana and bought their own land, she grew crops and sold them.
So probably it was my grandmother, that my mother got that kind of will and determination from. But I just think once my mother heard that it might allow her children to have an opportunity to get a better education and maybe even go to college, she just felt like, ‘Well, why not?’ She wasn’t a woman that was afraid, not at all. She probably didn’t even think about what the repercussions could have been.
Q: How so? You were going alone.
A: Truth be told there were many, many people during the civil rights movement. As a matter of fact, in my same community, there were almost 150 volunteers who had their children tested; parents who had 6-year-old kids, who volunteered their kids to go to these schools. But you know, the opposition made sure that those kids were tested. What the parents didn’t know is that the test was set up to eliminate kids. The same tactic that we used when we were trying to register to vote. We, as Black folks, knew that if you really want it to see change, you have to step up to the plate to make that happen. And many, many people did that.
Q: How many kids passed?
A: Only six kids passed. And I happened to be one of them. By the time it was time to go, those six kids were divided up and assigned to two schools. Three to each. When the first day came, the two that were assigned to go to school with me, their parents decided not to. And it was left for me to go alone.
Q: It’s the picture of you going down the steps of the school with the U.S. Marshalls, and you are carrying a briefcase that is about as big as you are that makes me tear up every time I see it.
A: Yes, I was sent off with a little lunch box and that briefcase and just told, “You better behave.”
Q: That’s what your mama told you?
A: That was it. That was my preparation for what was to come. You know, but when you think about it, there’s really no way to prepare a 6-year-old. If you try to, you’d probably frighten them.
Q: But there is also a picture of you and your teacher, Mrs. Henry, who was white, and a group of little girls who were also white sitting together smiling by the end of your first year of school.
A: Mrs. Henry was constantly going to the principal and saying, ‘You know, you’re breaking the law; the law has changed now, and kids are supposed to be together, but you’re hiding those kids from Ruby. And if you don’t allow them to come together, I’m going to report you to the superintendent.’ And so that forced them to allow us to come together. And that’s what that photo is in the book.
Q: You’ve said that the tape of George Floyd being killed was a real catalyst for you writing this book.
A: I witnessed what everybody else did and was so upset by it. It seemed like nothing was really changing. I talk about the fact that I would always see hope, that most people didn’t see, in the eyes and in the hearts of young people that I’ve been working with for 25 years in schools across the country. But here this was happening. My babies, that call them, must have been saying, ‘Well, this isn’t what Ruby has been talking to us about.’ They had to be confused. All of us the first week or two were sitting waiting for someone to come up and say something. People who I’m very close to said, ‘Why don’t you write a letter?’ We first thought that I would write the letter and have it published in USA Today or The New York Times or something. But after some very careful conversations with my publisher, we decided to publish it. So that’s what that book is all about. I just spoke from my heart.
Q: But what is the message you have for young people who go to diverse schools, have diverse groups of friends but they still are having trouble dealing with what they saw on that tape?
A: We all know that racism has been kept alive by using young people. I always say that racism is a grownup disease. We keep it around from one generation to the next. That’s why I choose to work with young people. But the truth of the matter is, I also want to young people to understand that they have some responsibility as well. They, too, have to pick up the torch and come together and work together to get past our racial differences. If I could do what I did at six years old, they can do something, too.
Q: There’s always the cynic out there, the exceedingly woke, those who are part of cancel culture who might say, that’s not being realistic, or that’s, well, simplistic. What do you say to those folks?
A: I am very hopeful. I believe in the Lord. I believe that there are more good people in the world than bad. I mean, what is there for us to believe in if we don’t believe in hope and love for one another?
“This Is Your Time”
by Ruby Bridges
Delacourt Press, 64 pages, $15.99.