When Ruby Bridges was five years old, she was the only student in her New Orleans school because a judge had ordered the school integrated and white parents pulled out all of their children. The woman who was the subject of a legendary Norman Rockwell painting going to school guarded by white U.S. Marshals spoke at Niagara University Wednesday evening.
Bridges now works with kids to talk about what she went through in 1964 and how it applies to this country today, 53 years later. Speaking at NU was part of traveling the country, talking of her experiences to young people who may know little or nothing about the Civil Rights Era, but live in a time when some of the same issues circulate or grow.
"My experience comes from that of a child and whenever I am in front of kids and actually working with them, the six-year-old comes back out again and they can relate to that six-year-old," Bridges said. "I believe history is sacred and none of us really have the right to alter or change it in any way - and to really explain it, we have to teach it the way that it happened."
Bridges said the lessons of the past still apply. When she was 19 and a reporter brought up the Rockwell painting as one of the most enduring images from the era, she did not realize how relevant to a time her five-year-old kindergartner image was.
"Shows me the Norman Rockwell painting, something that I had really not seen before and said, 'Do you realize that this is you?' And I have to say, up until that very moment, I thought what I did was something that just happened in my neighborhood," Bridges said.
She still lives in New Orleans. Bridges said she is optimistic that things will get better, based upon her experiences in the decades since kindergarten. She was confident America will move on to better times from today's racial strife and younger people will not buy into the racial attitudes of their parents and adults to create a better country.
"I'm hopeful and I would think that all of us we really need to be," Bridges said. "I don't think that we need to feel that we're going to be in this place from now on. I believe that we are going through a really dark time right now, but then the Civil Rights Movement was also a dark time that brought us to a better place."
The civil rights pioneer said young people have to be told the truth about what happened and not block those days out of history classes.