Ruby Bridges, who became the public face of New Orleans school desegregation in 1960, now stands immortalized in bronze in the schoolyard of the institution she integrated a half-century ago.
Flanked by her mother, her former teacher and one of the U.S. marshals who led her to school each day, Bridges was honored Friday with the unveiling of a statue of her likeness at the former William Frantz Public School. She is captured in the work, titled “Honoring the Power of Children,” as a smiling 6-year-old on her way to school.
Bridges, now 60, said she hopes the monument will encourage and inspire children to become advocates for social justice.
“We need to honor the power of children,” she said. “We need to encourage them that they can do extraordinary things.”
In 1960, Bridges became the first black student to desegregate an American elementary school in the South. On a Monday morning in November of that year, four federal marshals escorted the young girl past a crowd of segregationist protesters and into the previously all-white school.
“Groups of high school boys, joining the protesters, paraded up and down the street and sang new verses to old hymns. Their favorite was ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ in which they changed the chorus to ‘Glory, glory, segregation, the South will rise again,’ ” Bridges wrote of her first day at William Frantz in her 1999 memoir, “Through My Eyes.” “Many of the boys carried signs and said awful things, but most of all I remember seeing a black doll in a coffin, which frightened me more than anything else.”
Friday marked the 54th anniversary of that day. It brought the reunion of Bridges; Charles Burks, the only surviving marshal in the group that shepherded her to and from the school each day of that first year; and Barbara Henry, the only teacher who would agree to work with the young student.
Henry and Bridges spent the school year together, alone, in a classroom on the school’s second floor. When she stepped into that room, known now as Ruby Bridges Room, for the first time since the 1960s, Henry was brought to tears. She recalled the “loneliness” she and Bridges shared in that room, while being shunned by other teachers and students, but also the “wonderful bond” they built.
“We had a grand time together,” Henry said. “Ruby and I became one another’s support system. As much as I was here for her, she was here for me, too.”
Henry, Burks and Bridges’ mother, Lucille Bridges, who with her husband were rejected by some family and friends and lost their jobs after allowing Ruby to desegregate the William Frantz school, all were honored Friday in a proclamation by Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.
Bridges said in an earlier interview this week that racism remains painfully real today.
She pointed to the tense events in Ferguson, Missouri, after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, revelations about racist comments made by owners in the National Basketball Association and the fact that many American schools have failed to become racially mixed.
“You almost feel like you’re back in the ’60s,” Bridges told The Associated Press. “The conversation across the country, and it doesn’t leave out New Orleans, is that schools are reverting back” to being segregated along racial lines, she said.
She looks at her own experiences as evidence of a new segregation.
For example, after initially boycotting the desegregated school, white students returned to William Frantz and the school became integrated, she said. Fast forward to today: The school now occupying the William Frantz building is 97 percent black, according to school data.
A May report by the Civil Rights Project, a research center at the University of California-Los Angeles, found that in the South about 23 percent of blacks were in majority-white schools in 2011, down from a peak of 43 percent in 1988. Nationally, the report found that a white student typically sits in a classroom that is three-fourths white, while a typical black or Latino student is in a classroom with eight white students.
In New Orleans, after integration, whites generally sent their children to private or parochial schools — and that preference continues today. Blacks today make up 86 percent of the city’s public school enrollment, according to 2013 data from the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University.
Bridges now travels the country speaking to schoolchildren and sharing a message of anti-bullying.
“We have to come together to fight the evil that plagues our country,” she said. “And we shouldn’t care what we look like. What matters most is what’s inside, and that’s the message that I spread across the country.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.