Ruby Bridges Inspires Library Crowd with Her Story

Crime, Law and JusticeSocial IssuesRacismArts and CultureHistoryEntertainmentMinority Groups

More than 200 people packed themselves into the Carriage House behind the Algiers Courthouse to see Ruby Bridges, one of the first black students to attend New Orleans public schools.

"I was 6 and didn't have a clue about what was going on,"Bridges told the audience at the temporary location for a NewOrleans Public Library branch.

It was 1960, and though she now knows that she "carried theweight of a nation" on her tiny shoulders, at the time she didn'tunderstand all the commotion.

The only thing her parents told her, recalled Bridges, was "Youare going to a new school today, and you'd better behave."

The new school was William Frantz Elementary in the 9th Ward. Atthe same time, three other black girls were walking up the steps ofMcDonogh 19. Aside from her mother and a band of federal marshals,Bridges was alone.

As she walked into the school on that first day, Bridges said,she saw barricades, a mob of people shouting and throwing things,and police officers.

But it all seemed familiar, not scary: "I remember thinking,'Today is Mardi Gras. I'm in a parade.' It was everything thathappens during Mardi Gras, so I wasn't afraid."

Bridges spent the entire first day sitting with her mother inthe principal's office, watching through a window as angry-lookinggrown-ups passed, pointing at her and shouting. Then they passedthe window again, this time with their children.

Bridges said she recalled neighbors talking about a test she hadtaken and how smart she was, and thought, "Maybe I'm in college."

By the second day, the crowd outside the school had doubled. Theclassrooms were empty. Every child had been pulled out. "I didn'tknow it was because of me," she said.

It was on that day that Bridges met Barbara Henry. Upon meetingthe woman from Boston who would spend every day of that school yearteaching Ruby, one on one, her first thought was: "'She is white.'I didn't know what to expect. She looked just like all of thepeople outside."

That relationship not only inspired Bridges to love school, buttaught her a lesson she has tried to teach children ever since:"You never judge a person by the color of their skin.

"I don't waste my time trying to convince adults not to beracist," Bridges said. "But I do want kids to have a choice."

She believes the best way to bring about change is through youngpeople who haven't yet learned to hate - people like herself at 6years old.

"Our children have nothing to do with racism," Bridges said."Racism has no place in the hearts of our kids. It's us - we passracism on to our kids."

Bridges said schoolbook history leaves too many stories untold:stories of black and white people fighting side-by-side for civilrights, and stories in which white people died.

Bridges, who lost her house in eastern New Orleans to HurricaneKatrina, has since moved to the West Bank. But she spends themajority of her time flying around the country, speaking tochildren about not only her experience, but also asking questionsabout their lives. "So many kids are dealing with the same thing.They are still dealing with racism and that's a shame."

To the joy of the crowd, Bridges that she is applying to runWilliam Frantz Elementary School as her a charter school tospecialize in teaching history, community service and socialjustice. Bridges believes that by teaching all history, andacknowledging all who made contributions, she can show childrenthat they have more in common with those who look different thanthey realize. She also wants to incorporate a civil rights museumin the school.

Social justice, she explained to the numerous young people inthe audience, means "You have to share your toys.

"We have got to start taking care of each other," Bridgesstressed. Too many young people are being lost to violence, shesaid. The audience was stunned by Bridges' personal disclosure thatin 2000, she lost her eldest son to gun violence.

"It's time to get rid of whatever element out there that isharming kids," she said. "You are not my brother if you standover him and shoot him 11 times."

Evil, she emphasized throughout the evening, "comes in allshades and colors." As does good.

After a standing ovation, the emotional and enthralled room wasopened to questions. The first, from a young girl, was: "How didit feel to be the only black student at school?"

"It was lonely," Bridges replied.

"How did you feel when you heard the screaming and yelling?" ayoung boy asked. "I didn't know they were screaming at me"because the chant rhymed, Bridges told him. At home, she said, sheand her sister jumped rope to the chant she heard over and over:"Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate."

From the adults, Bridges was given a short song, told about onewoman's personal experience in dealing with racism, and was askedabout her assessment of the current level of racism in the city.She referred to a recent conversation with civil rights leader andU.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who told her "I've never seen thiscountry so mean-spirited as it is today."

When a young boy stood to tell everyone how strong his motherwas, bringing the audience to tears, Bridges said, "These are thekinds of hearts we have to protect. "We need hearts like that."

As the question period closed, everyone, young, old, and of allshades of skin pigmentation, clamored to meet Bridges, pose forphotographs, and buy her book, "Through my Eyes." Outside, honestand open conversations continued about race, an often daunting andavoided topic, and one Bridges reminded people can be "a verytouchy subject."

Two nights prior, Algiers resident Elaine Henderson had read achildren's book written about Bridges to her granddaughter.Five-year-old Alfreyon Smith insisted that they come to see Bridgesin person.

"I like her because she was brave," Alfreyon said.

Henderson's other granddaughter, Unique Sullen, 11, was alsoinspired by Bridges.

"I think she made a point that racism is not right," Uniquesaid, "And that we all should be treated equal."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times