"I’m also standing on the shoulders and in the shadows of people who made huge sacrifices for all of us,” the civil rights activist and author tells PEOPLE

By Wendy Naugle
November 24, 2020 10:00 AM
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Credit: @Bria Goeller and @Goodtrubble www.Goodtrubble.com; Inset: Tom Dumont

It’s been 60 years this month since Ruby Bridges first stepped into William Franz Elementary School, following a court ruling enforcing desegregation of the district.

Now Bridges is commemorating the anniversary with a new book, This Is Your Time, which is a letter to young people. She also hopes to inspire them “to pick up the torch,” she says. “We all have a part in making this country that we call the United States live up to its name.”

Her book was a planned event. What she didn’t plan was to become part of a viral moment after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the election. The image going around was an iteration of the famous Norman Rockwell painting of 6-year-old Bridges as she integrated Franz in New Orleans in 1960; the 2020 version photoshopped Bridges’ shadow from the painting leading another groundbreaker walking tall, Vice President-elect Harris.

Ruby Bridges' book cover

Bridges learned about the meme the way you might expect of a 66-year-old: Her son showed it to her.

“He said, ‘Mom, have you seen this?’ I thought, ‘That is so cool,'" she says.

Bridges had been “rooting for” Harris and Biden. Seeing her 6-year-old self juxtaposed with Harris’ picture “made me feel a sense of pride to be a part of that journey. But I also felt a responsibility to all of those who came before me. Because I’m also standing on the shoulders and in the shadows of people who made huge sacrifices for all of us.”

When Bridges, the oldest of eight children born to Lucille, a housekeeper, and Abon, a mechanic, went to first grade that November day, she didn’t know she was taking a momentous step in history — her parents had simply told her she was going to a new school and needed to behave. Bridges’ father was hesitant to send his daughter to an all-white school, but her mother was determined.

Ruby Bridges in 1960
| Credit: Anonymous/AP/Shutterstock

It had costs for everyone in the family. Bridges spent most of the year isolated. White parents boycotted the school; even when some students returned, she was not allowed to be in class with them and was prohibited from going to recess or the cafeteria. Her father, who won a Purple Heart in Korea, was fired from his job. Her grandparents, all sharecroppers, were turned off their land.

What sustained her, Bridges says, was her faith; her teacher, Barbara Henry, a white woman from Boston whom she often called her best friend; and acts of kindness from strangers. People from across the world sent letters, gifts and donations via the NAACP and other supporters.

“There are lots of kind, good people in the world,” she says. “My family was privileged to be on the receiving end of that.” (Kindness is an act of protest, she says: “Those of us that consider ourselves good, we have to stand up and be counted, so that we all see the good.”)

But for years, Bridges largely remained anonymous. Her name had been withheld by media when she was young. John Steinbeck wrote about how she walked past howling protesters — most of them white women — in his book Travels with Charley, but he never knew who she was.

Rockwell debuted his painting — his first political work — in 1964, memorializing the girl’s act of courage, but not her name. Bridges herself didn’t see Rockwell’s piece until she was about 17.

“In my tiny mind I thought this was just something that happened on my street and in my community,” she says. “I didn’t realize that it was a part of a much broader movement.”

She realized she had helped change the face of education across the country.

Ruby Bridges with former President Barack Obama
| Credit: Shutterstock

Still, she continued to live a quiet life, working as a travel agent for about 15 years. It was a family tragedy that forced her to change course: her brother was murdered.

“I ended up back at Franz, taking his daughters to school because they lived in the same neighborhood,” says Bridges, who had four boys of her own. “Once I got inside, I was so disappointed to see that the school was really deteriorating. I felt like, 'My goodness, all the sacrifices that were made here in this building — it’s just going to waste.'"

Shortly after that, she started the Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance through education.

“My maker was waiting until I was ready to step into [being an activist],” she says with a laugh. “If it had happened before, I honestly don’t think I would have been prepared.”

Her work focuses on fighting racism before it starts — by working with kids.

“We all know that babies come into the world with a very unique gift, and that is a clear heart,” she says. “Racism is a grown-up disease. Let’s stop using our kids to spread it.”

This year has been especially bittersweet for Bridges. Her mother died the day her new book was released.

“I do believe in her passing she really felt like she made a difference in the world,” Bridges says.

And she remains hopeful about the future.

“So many times people ask, how can I make a difference?” says Bridges. “Look at what Norman Rockwell did: He took a talent that he had, then he stepped outside his comfort zone and decided, ‘What I see is wrong and I want to make a political statement.’ All of us can do something. It doesn’t have to be amazing. It’s about taking your gift and using it for good.”