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The Six-Year-Old That Changed Obama’s Life And American Education Forever

How far would you go for a better education? How much would you risk to be able to learn?

Today when education is often taken for granted, most people would laugh at the question. But for 6-year-old, African-American Ruby Bridges and her parents, the answer was: everything.

On May 17, 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling that ended racial segregation in public schools in America. A strenuous, four-year-long legal fight culminated in a landmark decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, which determined that “separate but equal” was not only a false promise, but also inherently racist and unconstitutional.

Exactly three months and 22 days later, in a small town in Mississippi, Abon and Lucille Bridges had their first child. The family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, in pursuit of better job opportunities. Their daughter Ruby attended a segregated kindergarten, as southern states opposed the ruling and continued to resist integration even years later.

Ruby was about to start elementary school when her life changed. Under a federal court order, New Orleans schools were forced to desegregate, and Black students were given a test to determine their ability to integrate into an all-white school.

Ruby and five other students passed the entrance exam. Two of them decided not to move forward with the program, and the other three girls would go on to make history in another school and earn the title McDonogh Three.

Ruby’s parents were torn. Her dad Abon thought it was a bad idea, and didn’t believe society could ever change. Her mom, on the other hand, was excited about the prospect of a better education for their daughter.

Despite the heavy risk, the parents ultimately agreed to send their daughter to the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, and did so not just for their own children, “but for all Black children.”

To keep her safe from violent protesters, four federal marshals escorted 6-year-old Ruby on her first day of school. Bridges recalls people yelling slurs at her, and someone holding a black doll in a coffin that scared her more than everything else.

Ruby Bridges escorted by federal marshals, 1960. AP

White parents pulled their kids out of school and teachers walked out in protest, except for one: Barbara Henry, a white teacher from Boston, who was the only one willing to teach the new student.

For an entire year, Ruby Bridges was a class of one. Despite being at the center of a national controversy, she remained undeterred, never missed a day of school, and found comfort in praying and having her teacher’s undivided attention.

As the school year progressed, protests outside the school had subsided, but the Bridges family still paid a heavy price for their daughter’s education. Abon lost his job, Lucille was denied services, and Ruby’s grandparents were evicted from their farm where they had lived for several decades.

A couple months later, and thousands of miles west of New Orleans, another Black baby who would make history came to the world.

During his first term as USA’s first African-American President, Barack Obama invited Ruby Bridges to the White House. To honor her legacy, the famous 1964 painting The Problem We All Live With depicting her historic walk to school, was displayed just outside the Oval Office.

Snapshot from youtube.om

In their meeting, President Obama told Bridges: “I think it’s fair to say that if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here and we wouldn’t be looking at this together.”

Imagine having to fight so hard for the right to go to school. A year later, when Ruby Bridges attended the second grade, there were already eight Black kids in the new incoming first grade class.

None of them had to be escorted by guards.

*Today, September 8, is Ruby Bridges’ birthday. Happy Birthday Ruby!