Although the Supreme Court of the USA had ruled against segregated public schools in 1954 with the Brown v Board of Education decision, New Orleans had not desegregated its schools even though in 1956, Federal District Court Judge, J. Skelly Wright, ordered the Orleans Parish School Board to design an effective plan for the desegregation of New Orleans' public schools. The Bridges (Abon and Lucille) were forced by the segregation law to send their child to Johnson Lockett Elementary School, for her kindergarten year, where the student body and staff were African American even though it was farther from their home than the all white William Frantz School.
During the spring of 1960, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) informed the Bridges their child was one of the few to pass a test the school Board had administered to choose African American children to attend two all white schools and she had been chosen to attend the William Frantz School. Of the six children chosen to integrate the schools, two decided to stay in their old schools and the other three were assigned to McDonough 19 which left 6 year old Ruby Bridges the lone African American child to integrate William Frantz Elementary School on November 14, 1960. On November 14, 1960, four girls, accompanied by United States Marshals, integrated the two schools; Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, Gaile Etienne entering McDonough 19 and Ruby Bridges entering William Frantz Elementary.
While Bridges’ mother believed this was an opportunity to make a difference, her father had some reservations including fear for his child’s safety. In an article published in a March 2000 edition of Guideposts, Bridges wrote: My mother was all for it. My father wasn't. "We're just asking for trouble," he said. He thought things weren't going to change, and blacks and whites would never be treated as equals. Mama thought I would have an opportunity to get a better education if I went to the new school - and a chance for a good job later in life. My parents argued about it and prayed about it. Eventually my mother convinced my father that despite the risks, they had to take this step forward, not just for their own children, but for all black children.
Bridges also remembered that on November 14, 1960, that first day of school, the Federal Marshals drove the car in which she and her mother travelled the five blocks to the new school. While in the car one of the Marshals explained that when they got to the school two of the Marshals would walk in front and two behind the mother and child for protection on both sides. She wrote that as the car pulled up to the school her mother said to her "Ruby Nell, don't be afraid. There might be some people upset outside, but I'll be with you." That was the only preparation she received before being confronted by a vicious mob of white men and women as she and her mother hurried up the stairs between the four Marshals. Walter Cronkite reported the incident for the evening news and Americans witnessed the horrible scenes of mostly white women in a murderous frenzy because one small child entered a school where their children attended but the words that were screamed at that child were muffled. In his travelogue Travels with Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck who witnessed the scene on November 14, 1960 at William Franz Elementary School wrote of the blood thirsty mob: I’ve seen this kind bellow for blood at a prize fight, have orgasms when a man is gored in the bull ring, stare with vicarious lust at a highway accident, stand patiently in line for the privilege of watching any pain or any agony.
Adult white men and women took time out of their days to terrorise a small African American child for the entire school year. Describing the scene he witnessed at the William Franz Elementary School Steinbeck also wrote:
The show opened on time. Sound of sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white.From Steinbeck’s description, the white women were especially vicious in expressing their hatred of the six year old: No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene, On television the sound track was made to blur or had crowd noises cut to occur. But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate. In a long and unprotected life I have seen and heard the vomiting of demoniac humans before. Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow?
The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first skip the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.
Because of the angry mob Bridges did not get to class on the first day of school, November 14, 1960, she and her mother spent the day in the principal’s office where they witnessed furious white men and women taking their children out of the school. Bridges wrote of her recollections from that day and the following day: “We spent that whole day sitting in the principal's office. Through the window, I saw white parents pointing at us and yelling, then rushing their children out of the school. In the uproar I never got to my classroom. The marshals drove my mother and me to school again the next day. I tried not to pay attention to the mob. Someone had a black doll in a coffin, and that scared me more than the nasty things people screamed at us.” On the second day she did enter a classroom because one teacher agreed to teach her even though no white parents would allow their children to sit in the classroom with her. Bridges spent her entire grade one year protected by Federal Marshals, she was the only child in the classroom and she was never allowed to leave the class even for recess.
Meanwhile the white mob, mostly women, continued to riot outside the school, swearing, throwing objects and threatening death to the six year old http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBaReBh6sD4. It is almost unbelievable that the women, many of them mothers of children the same age as the then 6 year old Bridges, vowed to murder the child simply because she entered the same school as their children. One woman promised to poison Bridges which prompted the decision to not allow her to eat anything that was not prepared at home. The family suffered repercussions because of their decision to have their child integrate the all white school. Abon Bridges was fired from his job and his parents who were tenant farmers in Mississippi were thrown off the land by the white farmer/owner for whom they had worked for 25 years.
The family received a great deal of support from the African American community in their New Orleans neighbourhood. Speaking of the support the family received, during an interview aired on PBS Bridges said: “I don't think that my parents could have gone through what they did without the whole community coming together. We had friends that would come over and help dress me for school. Even when I rode to school, there were people in the neighborhood that would walk behind the car. I actually didn't live that far from school, and so they would actually just come out and walk to school with me.”
In 1999 Ruby Bridges Hall established the Ruby Bridges Foundation to “promote the values of tolerance, respect and appreciation through educational programs.” One of the projects she plans is the repair and restoration of the William Frantz Elementary School which was damaged in the Hurricane Katrina disaster. She hopes to re-open the school in 2012 with a Civil Rights Museum as part of it. As the Honourable Robert “Bob” Nesta Marley sang: We’re the survivors, the black survivors.
In defiance of the desegregation law, the white people of New Orleans did more than terrorize Ruby Bridges, Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, Gaile Etienne and their families. The Knights of White Christians was a New Orleans group that published and distributed the following leaflet:
“Death Stalks Our Land With Black Plague,” Knights of White Christians, New Orleans, August 1960
We call upon the white Christian manhood and womanhood of our native southland to fight and prove your loyalty to your forefathers who created this country with their courage, work, sacrifice and blood. The purity of the white race must be protected and preserved—Our racial dignity, southern heritages, and traditions as well as our rights guaranteed by the Constitution of our country cannot and will not perish from this earth. No power on earth can bring death to our white race and the southern Legion of Honor cause which we love so well – more than life – enough to defy and fight communism, tyranny and persecution, spearheaded by the black plague of racial integration, without fear of personal sacrifice or death.
Almighty God created segregation and in his name we would prefer to die than submit to mulatto mongrelization and the indoctrination, regimentation and mental slavery of a government of tyranny.
You are born alone – must die alone – must face the King of Kings alone – so – make your own decision.
United we stand and lead on to victory – divided we fall victims to black plague and Communism. . . .
Our No. 1 plank in our battle for survival program is the weapon used by the N.A.A.C.P. – BOYCOTT NEGROES. Do not employ Negroes – Do not deal with or patronize stores, business places, restaurants, churches, T.V. advertised products, sporting events, etc., that sponsor or promote racial integration.
Numerous Letters to the Editor were sent to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, protesting the desegregation of the two public schools, including:
New Orleans Times-Picayune, November 21, 1960
To the Editor:
A day that will live in the archives of New Orleans as its “Black Monday” of the 20th century, engulfed this city of the historic South on the 14th of November.
In direct violation of the state and federal constitution, a federal judge has assumed dictatorial powers over the city as well as the state of Louisiana. Never in the annals of American history has a so-called governing body of the United States, in the representation of the federal courts, intervened themselves . . . as in New Orleans.
If this nation is to enjoy the liberty and freedom of a democracy, then first of all, its leaders should renew the ideology of a democracy. . . .
As Louisiana speaker J. Thomas Jewell, in deliverance of his classic piece of oratory before the House of Representatives, said on the 14th of November:
“The courts are traditionally the guardian of liberty. They have the right to pass upon the actions of the lawmakers of Louisiana and every other state. They can render opinions regarding the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress itself. But no power on earth – including the federal court – can assume unto itself the right to prejudge the actions of the Legislature.”
These words are symbolic of the very meaning of American democracy. This nation was built upon foundations of strength, faith and determination – not upon the whimsical theories of dreamers. The strength of a country lies first of all in the patriotic health and moral stamina of that nation, not in an idea of liberalistic philosophy.
Lloyd F. Fricke, Jr.
Jack Howard, the mayor of Monroe, Louisiana, sent the following telegram to the legislative delegation from Monroe on Sunday, November 13, 1960. It was published in the Monroe Morning Herald on November 14, 1960
“Ouachita Men Strongly Back School Action”
Monroe Morning Herald, November 14, 1960
The white citizens of Monroe and Ouachita Parish are supporting you and the governor one thousand percent. Let’s battle the U.S. courts to the bitter end and learn once and for all whether the state of Louisiana, its legislature and its governor are going to run the affairs of our state or whether or not traitors like Skelly Wright and a Communist Supreme Court is going to take over, and run our state. We are supporting you all the way and ask that no stone be left unturned in this all important fight to preserve our traditional way of life. If we lose this fight then we have lost it all. Keep up the good work.