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Ruby Bridges: The 6-Year-Old Who Needed a Federal Marshal Escort to Attend First Grade

At six years old, Ruby Bridges famously became the first black child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in the South.

The moment has been immortalized in a Norman Rockwell painting with the apt title The Problem We All Live With: a little African American girl walks to school, surrounded by a team of U.S. Marshals, with racist graffiti and thrown garbage ornamenting the wall behind her. Ruby Bridges was only 6 years old in 1960 when the first grader arrived for her first day of school at  William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans — and was met by a vicious mob. The courageous girl would spend a year alone in the classroom, since other children had been removed by their parents due to her presence. But today, the 65-year-old Bridges says that those difficult days were worth it: "I now know that experience comes to us for a purpose, and if we follow the guidance of the spirit within us, we will probably find that the purpose is a good one."

Ruby, who was born on September 8, 1954, was one of only six black children who passed the tests that determined she could attend the previously all-white school; two families opted to keep their children at their old school, while three were transferred to McDonogh No. 19, leaving Ruby as the only student desegregating William Frantz. Ruby's father was hesitant to send his daughter, but her mother believed that it was important for the family to take that step — not just for Ruby herself, but for the children who would come after her. An order by Judge J. Skelly Wright dictated that New Orleans schools be integrated by November 14, 1960, so that would be Ruby's first day at school.

"That first morning I remember Mom saying as I got dressed in my new outfit, 'Now, I want you to behave yourself today, Ruby, and don't be afraid,'" Bridges recalled. "'There might be a lot of people outside this new school, but I'll be with you.' That conversation was the full extent of preparing me for what was to come." When Ruby arrived and saw the crowd, she had no idea that they were there to protest her presence. "Living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras," she reflected. "There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras. I really didn't realize until I got into the school that something else was going on."

"The Problem We All Live With" by Norman Rockwell

One of the federal marshals, Charles Burks, who served on her escort team, later recalled Bridges' courage in the face of such hatred: "For a little girl six years old going into a strange school with four strange deputy marshals, a place she had never been before, she showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn't whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier. We were all very proud of her."

When Ruby entered the school, now devoid of other children, only one teacher, Barbara Henry, who had recently moved from Boston, Massachusetts, agreed to teach her. Although the boycott against the school was broken the next day when a white Methodist minister Lloyd Anderson Foreman walked his 5-year-old daughter through the mob into the school, and other parents followed within a few days, Ruby still spent the first year at the school alone in one classroom with Henry "as if she were teaching a whole class." Despite daily harassment, which required the federal marshals to continue escorting her to school for months, Ruby persisted in attending school.

As the year went on, Ruby's family suffered for their decision: her father lost his job as a gas station attendant and her sharecropping grandparents were turned off their land. Even the grocery store where the family shopped turned them away. But, when Ruby returned for second grade, more African American students were there to join her. The pioneering school integration effort was a success due to Ruby's inspiring courage, perseverance, and resilience.

As an adult, Ruby Bridges still lives in New Orleans. Since 1999, she has been the chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, whose mission is to promote " tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences." She believes that the key to ending prejudice lies in fostering these values among children. "Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it," she asserts. "Each and every one of us is born with a clean heart.... We owe it to our children to help them keep their clean start."

Books About Girls Fighting Segregated Schools

The Story Of Ruby Bridges

The Story Of Ruby Bridges

Written by: Robert Coles
Illustrated by: George Ford
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

To kids today, the idea of a child having to be escorted to school by armed guards to protect her from an angry mob is shocking, but 6-year-old Ruby Bridges faced exactly that in 1960. After a judge ordered that Ruby should attend the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School, parents withdrew their children and held angry protests in front of the school. This compelling depiction of the child who became a civil rights hero just by attending first grade is now available in a special anniversary edition, which includes an updates afterword about Ruby's ongoing life and legacy.

Ruby Bridges Goes To School

Ruby Bridges Goes To School

Written by: Ruby Bridges
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

Ruby Bridges was just six years old when she walked through an angry crowd, escorted by federal marshals, to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans — by starting kindergarten. In this early reader, Bridges aptly tells her story to her young audience and accents it with historical photographs, allowing emerging readers to develop an understanding of segregation and to explore an iconic moment in the struggle for civil rights. It's an inspiring story about a courageous girl, told in her own voice! For a picture book telling of Bridges' story, check out The Story of Ruby Bridges for ages 4 to 8.

Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World

Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World

Written by: Susan Hood
Illustrated by: various
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

In order to change the world, you need to shake things up! This volume pays tribute to fourteen young women who defied the status quo. Each woman is recognized with a poem by author Susan Hood and paired with artwork by a different noteworthy female artist. From artists like Frida Kahlo and Maya Lin to scientists Mary Anning and Mae Jemison, to activists Ruby Bridges and Malala Yousafzai, these women refused to let the world tell them who they should be. This inspiring volume includes a timeline and additional resources to learn even more about the brave women inside its covers.

She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World

She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World

Written by: Chelsea Clinton
Illustrated by: Alexandra Boiger
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

"Nevertheless, she persisted" began as a rebuke, but it's become a celebration of the groundbreaking women who refused to take "no" for an answer! In Chelsea Clinton's captivating picture book, she celebrates thirteen American girls and women, including Ruby Bridges, whose determination and grit shaped their nation, paving the way for future generations to follow in their footsteps. Her capsule biographies are accented with vivid art from Alexandra Boiger, showing young readers that that no matter what obstacles may be in their paths, they shouldn't give up on their dreams. Persistence is power. Fans of this book can also check out the follow-up, She Persisted Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History; both books are available together in the She Persisted Boxed Set.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation

Written by: Duncan Tonatiuh
Illustrated by: Duncan Tonatiuh
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

Other minorities were also affected by school segregation. In the 1940s, Sylvia Mendez, an American citizen of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, was told that she couldn't attend a "Whites Only" school: no matter how well she spoke, read, and wrote in English, she had to go to a "Mexican school" because "that's how things are done." Her family refused to accept that, and fought the issue in court — resulting in a 1947 ruling that desegregated California's schools and paved the way for Brown vs. Board of Education. This inspiring true story about a state school segregation battle highlights how many courageous people were involved in the battle for this critical civil rights victory.

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Written by: Vashti Harrison
Illustrated by: Vashti Harrison
Recommended Age: 6 - 10

Throughout American history, there were bold, daring black women who broke all expectations and boundaries to make the world a better place! In this engaging picture book, author/illustrator Vashti Harrison introduces young readers to forty trailblazing girls and women, including Ruby Bridges, abolitionist Sojourner Truth, pilot Bessie Coleman, chemist Alice Ball, politician Shirley Chisholm, mathematician Katherine Johnson, poet Maya Angelou, and filmmaker Julie Dash. This inspiring book, filled with stunning full-page illustrations of each of the featured women, reminds young readers that every great leader began as a little leader, taking their first steps towards something big. Fans of Harrison's work can check out the sequel, Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around The World, or the Leaders and Dreamers box set, which includes both books. Younger readers can also enjoy the board book Dream Big, Little One for ages 2 to 5.

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges

Recommended Age: 7 and up

The story of Ruby Bridges, the first child to desegregate an elementary school in New Orleans, is told in this excellent film full of complex performances and frank examinations of how communities reacted to civil rights progress. 6-year-old Ruby, played by Chaz Monet, just wants to go to school; she never expected to be escorted by US Marshals to protect her from threats of violence or to study alone after a boycott by white parents. Despite it all, Ruby sticks it out through her first year of school and the next year, more students join her and the mobs are gone. Your Mighty Girl will be astounded to see a child, younger than her, have to face such incredible challenges. There are also several books for young readers about Ruby Bridges which you can find in our Ruby Bridges Collection.

Through My Eyes: Ruby Bridges

Through My Eyes: Ruby Bridges

Written by: Ruby Bridges
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

It's one thing to hear the story of Ruby Bridges in the third person, but in this remarkable book, you get to imagine it through her own eyes. In simple language, Bridges recounts the experience of simultaneously knowing that she was part of a bigger era in history, yet still being a child who didn't fully understand why people were so angry at her. With additional material including photographs, sidebars about Bridges' influence in popular culture, and an update on her later life and civil rights work, this volume creates a newly complex portrait of this iconic figure and her incredible courage.

Remember: The Journey to School Integration

Remember: The Journey to School Integration

Written by: Toni Morrison
Recommended Age: 8 - 14

At the heart of battles against school segregation were children — children just like the ones in classrooms today. In this remarkable book by beloved author Toni Morrison, she uses archival photographs of the Civil Rights movement, most of them depicting the ordinary young people whose lives were so deeply affected. Alongside these images, she crafts dialogue that captures what these children, who carried so much on their shoulders, were feeling and experiencing. Morrison's vibrant fictional account of "separate but equal" schooling and the battle for integrated classrooms, published for the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, is a powerful way to teach kids about this important part of American history.

This Promise of Change: One Girl's Story in the Fight for School Equality

This Promise of Change: One Girl's Story in the Fight for School Equality

Recommended Age: 10 - 13

When Jo Ann Allen joined the Clinton 12 — twelve African-American students who integrated Clinton High School in Tennessee — things seemed easy at first... but as time went on, there was unrest, anger, and even violence. Clever and popular Jo Ann became the spokesperson for the group, always aware that she and her peers were fighting for a critical change to the nation's education system. In this novel in verse, she tells her story, reminding readers that court-ordered integration was a double-edged sword ("We’re in, yes./ But it’s more complicated than that") but conveys a message of hope in a future of true racial equality.

Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories

Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories

Written by: Ellen S. Levine
Recommended Age: 10 and up

In every civil rights battle, children and teens took their parts too. This book collects the stories of thirty African Americans who were children or teens during the 1950s and 1960s. Each of them describes what it was like to grow up in a segregated America, how it felt to participate in protests, sit-ins, and school integrations, and the realities of the hatred, violence, and legal threats they faced as they did so. These powerful stories serve as a reminder that it took everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, to fight for the rights African-American people deserved.

Fire From The Rock

Fire From The Rock

Written by: Sharon Draper
Recommended Age: 12 and up

12-year-old Sylvia is an honor student who is both thrilled and scared to be selected as one of the students to integrate Central High School in 1957 Little Rock. Unlike her older brother, she doesn't want to be a hero; she just wants a chance to learn. And as the racism in Little Rock explodes — and even members of Sylvia's own community speak out against integration — Sylvia starts to wonder if she would be better off in the black-only school, focusing on getting to college instead of changing the world. In addition to its unflinching look at the realities of being the ones to desegregate a school, this book challenges young adult readers to consider how their decisions shape the future.

March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine

March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine

Written by: Melba Pattillo Beals
Illustrated by: Frank Morrison
Recommended Age: 12 and up

As a child, Melba Pattillo Beals saw Klansmen hang a man from the rafters during a prayer meeting; as a teen, she was almost raped when she was unknowingly taken to a KKK meeting. And throughout, she asked tough questions: why should she have to drink from a separate fountain, or live her life feeling unsafe? The adults in her life wanted her to keep quiet out of fear, but she refused: she knew there was a future where she could live free — and as one of the Little Rock Nine, she made her mark on history. This powerful memoir captures the courage and determination of Beals and the other child activists like her who pushed for change.

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