Ruby Bridges Keeps Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk

On Thursday, April 18, 2002, at 6 pm, a woman whose image is indelibly inscribed in our national consciousness spoke to the Harvard community in the Memorial Church, although she would probably have gone unrecognized until she explained who she is. 

Ruby Bridges needed only to hold up the famous Norman Rockwell painting of the little black girl in a white dress being escorted to school by federal marshals, and any crowd would respond with a collective nod of recognition. Ruby Bridges is all grown up now and has children of her own, but her bravery as a child moved and inspired not only painters like Rockwell and writers such as John Steinbeck, but also academics including Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles.

On November 14, 1960, nearly 42 years ago, Bridges faced hostile crowds as the first black child to attend a previously all-white New Orleans school. She was 6 years old and had only been told by her mother that she was going to be attending a new school that day and "had better behave." Little did she know that she would be bombarded with jeers and even death threats, and that she would end up being the sole child in her first grade class after other children were kept home by their parents.

Bridges has said that at first she thought the crowd that day was part of a carnival, like Mardi Gras, but what ended up scaring her more than the heckling was someone in the crowd who held up a black doll in a coffin. The main thing that got her through those days of walking through hate was the advice of her mother to say her prayers. "Prayer was my protection," she says. She also fondly remembers her teacher that year, Mrs. Barbara Henry, who hugged her every morning and sat by her side as they worked on the lessons. The first-grader became so close to her teacher that she even started picking up Mrs. Henry's accent. Mrs. Henry was from Boston. 

Another Boston native was in New Orleans at that time, doing advanced training in psychoanalysis. Robert Coles just so happened to be driving by the mobs that were hurling insults at Ruby Bridges as she walked that history-changing walk. Coles was so affected that he volunteered to work with Ruby, going to her house every week to talk to her about her experience. That interaction led Coles to his lifelong interest in studying the morality of children and to becoming a "field worker" as opposed to an in-office child psychoanalyst.

Bridges collaborated with Coles in 1995 in publishing The Story of Ruby Bridges, a picture book for children. Its success helped Bridges establish the Ruby Bridges Foundation, a diversity program that she began at her New Orleans school, William Frantz Elementary, and now offers consulting to other schools seeking to establish diversity programs. The foundation's slogan is "Racism is a grownup disease. Let's stop using kids to spread it!"

Before Coles's book, Bridges had spent many years out of touch with the people from that formative, but difficult, time. She has said that from the age of 7 to the age of 37, "I had a normal life and not a very easy one." She returned to her memories after her youngest brother was murdered in 1993, and for a while, she took care of her brother's children. The children just so happened to be students at William Frantz Elementary. Bridges describes it as literally walking into her past when she walked her nieces into the same school she'd helped integrate so many years earlier. She said she began to feel that God was bringing her back in touch with that part of her past for a reason.

Then Coles's book was published, and Bridges was reunited with her favorite teacher, Barbara Henry. She started speaking to schools and other groups about her story, sometimes with "Mrs. Henry." She soon realized that people had a lot more questions than the picture book answered, so she decided to write her own book. Through My Eyes, published in 1999, gives more detailed information about her first year of school and stresses that the lessons of the past with regard to racism and education are still relevant to today.

While writing her book, Bridges found herself reflecting on her childhood experience as a parent herself (of four boys), and she realized that her parents had made a great sacrifice by sending her into that hostile environment for the good of others. She decided the best way to honor that sacrifice was to devote her life to speaking out about the issues surrounding racism and education that continue to plague this country. She now lectures school and community groups nationwide to help people understand that racism has no place in the minds and hearts of children, nor does it have a place in the school systems that are supposed to nurture them

Take William Frantz Elementary. It is no longer an integrated school, having an all-black student body because whites in New Orleans fled to the suburbs or chose to send their children to private schools or magnet schools. This troubles Bridges, who knows from experience that "schools need to be diverse if we are to get past racial differences." Bridges's foundation works on these issues in concrete ways, providing models of diversity programs for schools throughout the country.

Bridges undoubtedly will have something to say about the current state of affairs in our nation's schools when she speaks at Memorial Church on April 18. But mostly, Bridges will continue to show by her example that "talking the talk" does indeed require you to "walk the walk." By reminding us of the historic walk she made in 1960 while pointing to new challenges, the adult Ruby Bridges delivers an important message: For all the change that was forged by Americans of all races and ages back then, there is still much to be done now.

The conversation with Ruby Bridges was sponsored by Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard Children's Initiative, Adams House, Division of General Pediatrics at Children's Hospital, and the Memorial Church. An informal reception and book-signing followed the event.