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Ruby Bridges on turning her experience of desegregating a school into a kids' book

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The morning of November 14, 1960, a little girl named Ruby Bridges became the first Black child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Ruby was 6, and as she got dressed and left for school that day, she told me she didn't know she was making history.

RUBY BRIDGES: I had no idea that it was going to be a white school. It wasn't something that my parents explained to me. As a matter of fact, the only thing they said is, Ruby, you're going to go to a new school today, and you better behave.

KELLY: Four federal marshals had to drive her, and an angry white mob greeted her at the school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They got places for you.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) We don't want to integrate. Two, four, six, eight - we don't want to integrate.

BRIDGES: Living in New Orleans, I was accustomed to Mardi Gras, and that's exactly what it looked like to me - white people, Black people all lined up together and, you know, shouting and waving their hands and throwing things.

KELLY: Today, Ruby Bridges is a civil rights activist and an author. Her new children's book, "I Am Ruby Bridges," tells her story through her 6-year-old eyes. So I asked her to read a bit for me.

BRIDGES: (Reading) The second day, when I arrived at my classroom, my new teacher opens the door and greets me. Hi. I'm Mrs. Henry, your teacher. Come in and take a seat, she says. And aren't I surprised because she is also white. I never had a white teacher before. The biggest surprise of all - I am the only kid in the class. I didn't see any other kids at all - not one. That test must have been a lot harder than I thought. Why am I the only kid in my class, not to mention the only kid in the whole school? Why don't I see anyone who looks like me? And then that's when it hit me.

KELLY: As I was reading, it took me a minute to get that - why there were no other kids. This is because white parents had come to school and pulled their kids out, taking them home.

BRIDGES: Absolutely. When I arrived on the first day, the mob of people standing outside rushed inside of the building behind me. I was escorted to the principal's office, where I sat the whole day with my mom, waiting to be assigned to a classroom. That did not happen because every one of those parents rushed in behind me, went into every classroom. And they pulled out every time. I watched them parade right past me out of the school building. And so by the time I got there on the second day, the school was totally empty.

KELLY: I am so sorry you had to go through that. Did it get better? Did kids - other kids eventually show up?

BRIDGES: You know, I think kind of the story that lots of people are not aware of is that there were some white parents who actually tried to cross that same picket line, that same mob during that year to bring their kids to school with me. But it was only a handful - maybe five, six kids. And the principal would take them, and she would hide them so that they would never see me and I would never see them. I remember hearing voices, but I never saw kids. And it kept me wondering where the voices were coming from, if they were real at all. What I did not know is that every time I would mention it to Mrs. Henry, she was going to the principal and advocating for me. She was saying, you know, the laws changed, and kids can be together now. But you're hiding them from Ruby. If you don't allow them to come together, I'm going to report you to the superintendent. And that forced them to allow Mrs. Henry to take me to where they were being hidden. And that was near the end of the year.

KELLY: Near the end of the year. I'm thinking. I just introduced you as the first African American student to integrate an elementary school in the South. And it sounds like integrate was way too strong a word for what was happening at that school for most of that school year.

BRIDGES: Yes. You know, that was always something that bothered me. I was the only kid, and it stayed that way until the end of the year. And Mrs. Henry took me to this other classroom and opened the door. Lo and behold, there they were - four or five kids sitting there playing. And I was so excited. It didn't matter to me what they looked like. I just wanted someone my own age to play with, so I was excited to find them finally. But I have to say that that was the day that I realized that everything was about me and the color of my skin because a little boy said, I can't play with you. My mom said not to play with you. And he called me the N-word. And that's when I had my aha moment that the reason why there were no kids here was because of me and the color of my skin. He actually made it make sense. I did not realize what was going on around me until he told me. And that's my first encounter with racism. He introduced it to me.

KELLY: You're only in your 60s now. What happened to you that first day of school was so recent in the grand scheme of things. And it occurs to me that the kids reading this today - many, most of them will take it for granted that Black and white kids go to school together. This is totally normal. How else would it be? They've never known anything else. How did you think about writing to kids for whom this must feel like ancient history in a way and yet it so clearly isn't?

BRIDGES: What I found in the past 25 years of visiting schools and talking to kids and working with them - I think that they relate to the loneliness. They relate to someone not wanting to play with you for no real good reason, not giving you a chance. So kids - it resonates with them. They don't quite understand why someone would do that, why someone would treat another person like that. And I think that they feel like, why don't we give each other a chance, try to get to know each other - that everyone at that age wants a friend to play with. And I think that that's part of what they resonate with. The fact that it's also explaining a time in history when we couldn't be together - you know, it touches on something that I truly want them to understand. The racism just does not make any sense. And they get that. And, you know, once this book is closed and I know that they've gotten that, then I feel like part of my work is done.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Ruby Bridges, author of the children's book "I Am Ruby Bridges: How One Six-Year-Old Girl's March To School Changed The World." Thank you.

BRIDGES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT SLATER SONG, "4 LEAF CLOVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.