Merriam-Webster defines a hero as a person admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities. To be first at doing something is a notable distinction. To be first, against incredible odds, when you are a six-year-old girl, and to persevere when many of the people in your city, county, state, and region openly express hatred for you, takes you to a level beyond hero. When those hating throw things at you, spit on you, call you names, threaten you, and your family and yet you hold your head high, walk confidently, and persist through it all, then you are an icon.
For Miss Ruby Bridges, those qualities were not only met but drastically exceeded. Against circumstances that would have withered most adults, Bridges not only endured but succeeded and thrived. At the age of six, she became the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South against widespead resistance.
Brown vs. Board of Education was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court a few years before Ruby was born in 1954. In that landmark case, the court ruled unanimously that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Subsequent cases outlined the specifics of accomplishing desegregation. Across the South, governmental leaders led the charge to slow or halt the process. In one of the most widely known incidents, Arkansas Governor Faubus ordered the National Guard to block entry to nine students who had been accepted into Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower had to nationalize the Guard to facilitate their access. He deployed troops from the U.S. Army 101st Airborne to ensure that the nine could safely register for and attend classes.
Ruby Bridges was born in Mississippi, and her family moved to Louisiana when she was two. She went to a segregated kindergarten and was one of six children that passed exams to determine that she was academically on par with the students at the all-white William Frantz Elementary School.
Her parents, Lucille and Abon Bridges, were not initially in agreement that she should attend the new school. Her mother wanted her to have the best education possible and wanted her to open the new door. Her father was apprehensive of her safety. Once the decision was made for her to enter, the school district delayed and stalled until November 14, 1960. Federal Marshalls escorted her on her first day and every other day of her first school year.
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She had to walk past crowds yelling threats and even confronted by a woman holding a black baby doll in a coffin. The protester’s signs made it clear that Ruby was not wanted or welcome. Another woman threatened to poison her. Ruby spent her entire first day in the principal’s office for her safety because, due to the boycott from the protesting white parents, there were no students in attendance in the entire school.
Nonetheless, each day Ruby walked past it all and did not miss a day of school in the entire year. One of the marshals that escorted her later said, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very, very proud of her.”