Ruby Bridges: I love to walk. I like being out in nature. My granddaughter always says, “Mami”—she calls me Mami—“Mami, whenever you are really upset, things are bothering you, you should get out. Go to the park, and if you can, take your shoes off so you can feel the grass.” And she’s right. It just calms my spirit.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time To Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos and songs that have influenced their lives. In the winter of 1960, Ruby Bridges, then a precocious six year old, helped change the course of history in the United States. She was among the first Black children to integrate an elementary school in the South, ushering in a new era in the starkly divided country. On this walk, Ruby reflects on that experience, how she was called to be a civil rights advocate, and why meeting President Barack Obama in the White House had unexpected meaning for them both.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
Ruby Bridges: Right now, we are in Audubon Park, which is like one of the nicest parks here in New Orleans.
There’s all these huge, oh my god, hundred-year-old oak trees. And they’re just sweeping. All the moss hanging from them, I just love that.
I remember being a child, and we would come to the park. But we were only allowed in certain areas of the park, we meaning Black folks. And then I remember when laws changed, and it was so much fun to come.
“This Is Your Time” is a book that I published this year. I have several books, all children’s books. And basically, it’s about my story as a six-year-old.
When I was six years old, I was one of six African-American children to pass the test to go into an all-white elementary school. Basically to desegregate the public school system here in Louisiana, in New Orleans.
There were only two schools chosen to be integrated. Out of those six kids, three were assigned to one school and three to the other. But by the time the first day came, two of those kids dropped out. And the two kids that dropped out were assigned to go to school with me. That meant that I had to attend the school alone.
As a six-year-old, I had already gone to an all-Black school. You know, it was the law, and it was regular school for me. But after passing this test, I had to switch schools and then go to this white school, William Frantz Elementary.
My parents didn’t try to explain anything to me to prepare me for what I was about to walk into. The only thing they said is, “Ruby, you’re going to go to a new school,” and pretty much, “You better behave,” and that was it. But when you think about it in hindsight, now being a parent myself, you know, how do you explain to a six-year-old what they’re about to venture into?
The day that I entered the building, I was escorted into the building by federal marshals. They were actually sent by the President to escort me every day. Didn’t know why they were there. Definitely that wasn’t something that happened at my old school.
And then all of the parents showed up the next day, and other parents across the city, and they boycotted the school. Screaming and shouting and throwing things. I didn’t know that they were there to keep me out. You know, it looked like Mardi Gras to me.
I couldn’t understand why I had all of this attention around me just going to this particular school. I actually thought, in my mind, that the test that I took that they made such a big deal of meant I was smart enough to leave first grade and go straight to college. So I actually thought everybody came out to see this six-year-old go to college.
That’s really what protected me, was the innocence of a child, not knowing what was really happening around me.
And when I looked inside of the classroom, I remember thinking to myself, “My mom just brought me to school too early,” because there were no other kids there. White parents didn’t want their children going to school with a Black child. And there were lots of teachers who quit their jobs. They didn’t want to teach Black kids.
The day I met my teacher she said, “Hi, my name is Mrs. Henry. I’m your teacher.” I remember being a little bit taken aback by it because I had not seen a white teacher before.
And I soon learned that she was an amazing teacher. She and I became best friends. I loved school, and I never missed a day that whole year, and she never missed a day. I think we realized that we had to be there for each other.
There were some days when the mob would bring this small baby’s coffin, and they put this Black doll inside of the coffin. Even though I was escorted by federal marshals, they couldn’t keep me from seeing it. And I would have to pass them with the coffin to get inside of the building.
I had nightmares about the coffin all the time. My mom would always say, “Ruby, if you’re ever afraid and I’m not with you, you know you can always say your prayers.” And I would do that, and the nightmare would go away. So, in my six-year-old mind, my prayers worked. And they work today.
There were some white parents who crossed that same picket line. They brought their kids to school, but the principal, who was part of the opposition, she would take those kids and she would hide them so that they would never see me, and I would never see them. My teacher, she started going to the principal and saying, “You’re breaking the law. Law’s now changed.” So that forced them to take me to where the kids were.
I remember the day that I went to the room where they were. This little boy, he looked at me, and he said, “My mom said not to play with you. Because you’re a n*****.” And when he said that, it felt like this huge weight lifted off my shoulders because, for the whole year, I’d been trying to figure it out.
It made me realize that, “So that’s what’s going on. It wasn’t college, and it wasn’t Mardi Gras. It’s all about me and the color of my skin. That’s why all those people are outside, and that’s why there’s no kids here. That’s what the coffin is all about.”
What comforted me was the relationship I had with my teacher. How she made school fun, and I loved learning. She is still alive, and she and I are still best friends.
For the last 25 years, I’ve traveled across the country talking to kids about my experience as a six-year old. I believe that, if we are going to get past our racial differences, it’s going to come from our children.
But then, this particular year, like all of us, sitting in our homes on lockdown because of COVID-19, watching television, 24/7. And, lo and behold, we watched this man lose his life right before our very eyes, Mr. Floyd.
It was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. So I wrote a book, just kind of pouring my heart out in a sense. I kind of wanted to explain to young people that I was proud of them taking to the streets. Even though it’s hard to see and hard to watch, hard to be a part of, it’s something that had to happen because, even in 1960, what I went through probably had to happen so that all kids could be in school together. So it actually brought us from a dark place to some light.
The unfortunate piece to that is that we didn’t do a good job at passing the torch and helping kids to understand that they, too, have a responsibility to move this country forward.
I titled the book “This Is Your Time” because it is their time. It is their time. And I think they knew that, or they know, pretty much. All the protests show us that they are aware.
We have to be hopeful that we are going to get to a better place. If not, then what are we doing this for? We should not ever be a hopeless people. It is not going to be an easy fight. Never is. But we all really do have a responsibility to leave this place better than we found it.
Somewhere around 19 or so, I started out trying to figure out how to get outside of New Orleans and outside of my community. For some reason, I knew that there was something better someplace else.
I ended up as a travel agent for about 15, 16 years, which afforded me the opportunity to travel abroad. And that, I think, just opened my mind more and my heart to different people and places.
And then all of a sudden I wasn’t happy anymore. Sometimes you’re on a job, and you know that you’re not happy there, but you don’t have what it takes to get up and leave. Well, that’s sort of what it felt like, and then, all of a sudden, I was fired. Couldn’t believe it.
Then I lost my youngest brother. He was murdered. And he had four little girls. I ended up taking the four little girls in my house and realized that there was so much that they were missing out on. Here I am feeling sorry for myself when I could really be trying to help them in some way.
So when I took them in my house, I had to drive them to school every day, and that’s what took me back into William Frantz Elementary. They were attending the school that I integrated.
It wasn’t like I told anybody there who I was. I remember the principal saying, “Oh, I know who you are. You’re Ruby Bridges. Are these your nieces?” And I said yes. Then the principal said, “Well, if you’re not working and you’re between jobs, why don’t you come in and volunteer?” And I thought, “Okay, I’ll do that.”
I think that was my prayers being answered because I had been praying, “What is it I’m supposed to be doing next?” So I went into the school that I integrated, and I started volunteering. That, I think, put me on the path of wanting to work with kids.
During that same time, the first book was published. The publishers asked me if I would promote the book. They said, “Well, we’ll take you into schools. We want you to share your story with kids and have you do some radio and some television. I didn’t know anything about doing that, and the more I did it, the more I shared my story, I realized I was an activist. You know, even when I was tired and didn’t want to get up and go out and do it, every time I did, some kid would connect with me.
I remember one incident. I was speaking to high school students, but it was a K-12 school. I was in the auditorium. I was up on stage, and all of these kids were sitting in their seats. The light was on me on stage, and it was dark in the auditorium.
And all of the sudden, the auditorium door opened, and I remember this light just shined right down the middle. And all I could see was this little shadow of a little girl, and she just walk straight down the middle of that auditorium. I stopped talking. Everybody’s eyes were on her. She walked up the stage, and she walked straight up to me, to the mic.
She said, “Hi, you’re Ruby?” And I said, “Yes.” She said, “I’m Katelynn. I’ve been your best friend ever since I met you in the book.” And I said, “You have?” And she said, “Yes. I’m your best friend. I don’t have any other friends, just you. I want a book, but I don’t have any money.” And I said, “Katelynn, I am your best friend. So I have a book for you. I can’t give it to you right now, but as soon as I’m done here, I’m going to come and bring it to your class. Okay?”
Afterwards, when I finished, the teacher tried to apologize. I was like, “It’s okay. Tell me about Katelynn. I have her book for her.” She said, “You know, Katelynn has problems. Katelynn’s been homeless.” And Katelynn looked really kind of scraggly. It was like her hair wasn’t combed, and her clothes were messy. And it just broke my heart.
That moment, I realized my story was resonating with kids who really had issues because they understood the loneliness in the classroom that I experienced, and they understood not having somebody like you.
There’s many stories, but that was one that I will never forget. It was a day when I wasn’t feeling good and didn’t want to get up and go out and do it, and it was like the spirit said, “This is why you need to do it. And every now and again, I’m going to remind you of it.”
It was a reminder of my responsibility. A job is a job. A calling is something different. Once you commit to a calling, there’s really no turning back. I wholeheartedly believe that.
And I think that calling for me is working with kids, sharing my story and helping them to understand how racism doesn’t really have a place in their hearts. And it doesn’t.
All of us have a purpose here. Some of us come into it, find out what it is, and some of us don’t. But I think we all have one. I’m just so happy that finally, at 30-some years old, I realized what mine was.
I was about 17, 18 when I first saw the Norman Rockwell painting. It was a reporter that came to New Orleans, wanted to do a story, and he showed it to me. And he said, “Are you aware that this is you?” And I was like, “Me? Wow, I’ve not seen that." And he was like, “Yes, it’s a depiction of you.”
I think Norman Rockwell, had been painting, doing all these beautiful family images for years and years. But during the civil rights movement, he felt like he wanted to make a political statement. So he made four very political pieces. “The Problem We All Live With,” of me entering the school was one. It was actually published in “Look” magazine in 1964.
I remember when I saw it, because no one actually talked about that whole desegregation process that I was a part of, I really thought it was just something that just happened right in my community. It wasn’t like I could read about my own story.
I didn’t realize that it was a part of a much bigger movement, that it changed the face of education across the country. It wasn’t like anybody was telling me that. I realized this is much more important than people want me to think. That was an “Aha” moment for me.
So, fast-forward, when I wanted to commemorate… me entering the school… I can’t remember exactly, but… one of those anniversaries that I really wanted to celebrate, Obama was in office.
And I didn’t want to do it just on a local level because it did change the face of education across the country. And also, my fingers were crossed, hoping that I’d get a chance to meet Obama.
So I actually started writing letters and we asked what they thought about having the painting hung in the White House. Of course, something like that had not been hung in the White House before. And I figured that if it was going to be, it would be in that administration. And sure enough, he was excited about it, and he said yes.
And then I got a call saying, “It’s hung. Come see it.” And I was, like, so excited to go.
I had been there, to the White House, before under the Clinton administration because I received the Presidential Medal.
So we went, and it was a closed meeting. I thought, “Okay. Well, this is cool. I’ve done this before. It’s no big deal.” So I’m standing there, these 12 people around me, and the door opens, and Obama comes through the door. At that very moment, as he starts to walk toward me, everything went out of the window and I looked at him, and I said to myself, “He’s Black. There is a Black man in the White House who is President of the United States.”
It is totally different seeing him on television. I don’t know. Not until you are in that space, and he’s in that office, do you realize it’s real.
I extended my hand, and I said, “Mr. President, it’s such an honor to meet you.” And he looked at me, and he put his hands on his hips, and he said, “Are you kidding me? I’m getting a hug. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a hug.” And he threw his arms around me, and as he was holding me, he whispered in my ear, “I cannot begin to tell you what an honor it is to welcome you into this White House."
And as I looked around the room, still in his arms, all those 12 people that were standing around us started crying. And that’s when it hit me. This wasn’t about just he and I meeting. It was about those two moments in time and everything that happened between us, for him to be where he is and for me to have come from where I came from. And they’d seen it. That moment in time was profound for me because I hadn’t realized it. I was just excited about meeting him, and I missed the meaning. I missed the sacrifices that allowed he and I to be at that place at that moment in time.
At that point, he said, “Come, I want to show you my office.” And I was like, “I was hoping you’d say that.” It was almost like he took me by my hand and he took me all through his office. He showed me things, and there, right outside of the Oval Office, this little hallway as you walk into his office, there was the painting.
We both stood there and looked at it and I remember asking him what the girls thought of the painting. And he said, “I catch them standing here looking at it. So I’m pretty sure they put themselves in your shoes.”
He turned and said to me, “You know, it’s fair to say that if it had not been for you all, I might not be here today.” And I said, “Well, we’re all standing on the shoulders of someone else.”
It was only supposed to be a 20-minute meeting, and we ended up there for about an hour. It was one of the highlights of my life.
So we’re here, amongst the oaks, and one in particular that I wanted to come to. It’s called the Tree of Life.
And it’s had an amazing life. You can just look at it and tell. There’s a marker on it, it says something about 1700-something. So, can you imagine this tree that is so huge, and it just stretches out? And its arms are laying on the ground. It’s just amazing.
To think that what I’m looking at now started out as a seed is unbelievable to me. It’s like a grandfather stretching out its arms. The fact that it’s here in the South, unfortunately, it’s probably had some strange fruit hanging from it. Probably has so many stories to tell.
Music in itself, to me, tells stories. Just the instruments, the rhythm, how it gets into your soul, makes you laugh, makes you cry… I love music.
I grew up listening to The Meters. It’s a local New Orleans band that the Neville Brothers was a part of. It’s a distinct New Orleans sound and rhythm. You would hear that music at Mardi Gras a lot.
[MUSIC FADE IN]
The Meters’ song that I really love is “Cabbage Alley.” It’s truly New Orleans.
[MUSIC - “CABBAGE ALLEY” BY THE METERS]
The Impressions’s “We’re a Winner” also lifts my spirits. You hear it, and it has a great vibe and rhythm. Who doesn’t want to be a winner?
[MUSIC - “WE’RE A WINNER” BY THE IMPRESSIONS]
Luther Vandross really puts me in a very spiritual, hopeful space. Nobody can do music like Luther. And he says it so beautifully. That is what the world needs, really, is love. So, whenever I’m down, I can always count on that song to lift me up.
[MUSIC - “WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW IS LOVE” BY LUTHER VANDROSS]
I hope that my stories inspire other people. I hope that it motivates them to get out and smell the roses, take some time. Take your walking shoes off. Put your toes in the grass and actually understand that life is good. Like my grandmother used to say, “Every day above dirt is good.”
Thank you for taking the time to walk with me today.