Ruby Bridges: The little girl who helped change the world

This is an event I found especially fascinating, with Ruby Bridges recalling her defining moment, 53 years ago. Here's the story I sent to papers:


It was a decade later – long after the shouting had stopped,
the rage had receded, the tiny coffin had been taken away – that Ruby Bridges realized
her place in history.

She was about 17 by then, when a reporter showed her Norman
Rockwell’s classic painting. It showed a small, black girl in a white dress,
walking amid federal agents.

“He said, ‘You know that it’s you,’” Bridges recalled. “And
I have to say that I was totally blown away …. Seeing that painting made me
realize that it was an event that changed the face of education.”

That was in 1960 in New Orleans, when she became the first
black student in an all-white school in the South. Such events are in the next
chapter of “The African Americans,” Henry Louis Gates’ PBS series.

Like many people, Gates saw these events unfold on the news.
He’s 63, four years older than Bridges; he was a 5
th-grader in
small-town West Virginia when Bridges started 1
st grade; the next
year, he saw Charlayne Hunter be one of the first two black students at the
University of Georgia. “These people are heroes to me,” he said. Telling their
stories “is one of the greatest honors of my life.”

In particular, he recalls the painting. “There are few
images more iconic (than) Ruby Bridges walking between four federal marshals …
a little black girl in a crisp white dress and neatly, neatly done braids.”

The NAACP had been looking for families to volunteer to
integrate New Orleans schools. Tests were taken; Bridges was one of four
chosen. She was the first and the only black at her school. “They didn’t
explain it so me, (so) I really thought that I had taken a test and I had
passed and (I could go) to college.”

Instead, she was taken to a school five blocks from her
home, facing fierce reactions. Her dad was fired, her grandparents were
dismissed from their sharecropping spot in Mississippi. Protestors yelled.

“The mob outside would bring a baby’s coffin,” Bridges recalled.
“And inside this coffin was a black doll. That really, really frightened me.
And my mom would say …, ‘You can always say your prayers.’”

That’s the same thing that helped Hunter when she was a
19-year-old college student, with rocks thrown at her dorm room, one of them
crashing through her window. The daughter and granddaughter of clergy, she
recalled “hearing my grandmother teach me the 23
rd Psalm: ‘Yea, though
I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’”

Hunter (now Hunter-Gault) went on to be a top reporter for
CNN and PBS, winner of two Emmys and two Peabodys. Bridges (now Bridges Hall)
was a travel agent and a full-time parent, before focusing on speaking to
schools and groups.

She has much to tell, about being taught by Barbara Henry (“an
amazing teacher, an amazing person”) and being the only person in her class. “When
she would go to hang up her coat,” Gates said, “she would hear voices through
the wall on the other side of the closet. All the white kids were effectively
concealed from her.”

“The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” 8
p.m. Tuesdays, PBS (check local listings). The Nov. 19 hour, the fifth of six,
goes from 1940 to 1968.