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Ruby Bridges: Civil rights icon looks back; subject of famous Rockwell painting

"The problem we all live with" - Norman Rockwell

Courtesy of Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Mass.

The 6-year-old African-American girl, pigtails tied with white bows, wearing a freshly pressed white dress with a bow in the back and matching white socks and white tennies, waited.

The knock came. Four tall white men stood outside. She and her mother would follow them.

“It’s not as if I knew who they were, or why they were there. It wasn’t like my parents explained it to me. Kids were supposed to be seen and not heard. The only thing I was told is that I was going to a new school and I should behave,” says civil rights icon Ruby Bridges.

On Nov. 14, 1960, Bridges became the first black child to integrate William Franz Public School in New Orleans, an experience captured in Norman Rockwell’s iconic 1964 painting, “The Problem We All Live With.”

Driven to school by the men, she clutched her books and ruler. Escorted down a walkway lined by angry white parents, she gazed straight ahead. Her entourage walked up the steps, then finally, into the school.

Bridges, 63, still of New Orleans, will keynote the May 4 fundraiser of One Hope United, a 120-year-old Chicago nonprofit providing early childhood education and intervention programs.

Ruby Bridges became the first black child to integrate William Franz Public School in New Orleans, an experience captured in Norman Rockwell’s iconic 1964 painting, “The Problem We All Live With.” | Provided

In the wake of last week’s passing of Linda Brown, the 7-year-old at the center of Brown v. Board of Education, Bridges spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times about the memories triggered by her peer’s passing and Wednesday’s 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Brown’s rejection by an all-white school in Topeka, Kan., led to an NAACP lawsuit and the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ending school segregation.

“Linda Brown and her father decided to take a stand, and passed the baton on to my parents and I,” says Bridges, married, with four sons. “As African Americans, we knew that if we wanted to actually see change, we had to step up to the plate to make it happen.”

The Rockwell painting appeared in the Jan. 14, 1964, issue of “Look” magazine, drawing the famed artist much flack. However, Rockwell, a financial supporter of the NAACP, continued to combat racism through his work.

In 2011, the painting, belonging to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., was loaned to the Obama Administration; it hung outside the Oval Office for several months.

Bridges is heading to Memphis Wednesday to participate in King commemoration events, among many nationwide. Activities at the National Civil Rights Museum — the Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated in 1968 — will be attended by many icons of the movement.

“I never had an opportunity to meet Linda … for one reason or another, it did not happen. It leaves me sad that another foot soldier is gone,” says the trailblazer whose story became a 1998 TV movie. She was awarded the 2001 Presidential Citizens Medal by President Bill Clinton.

Like many in the movement, her parents were “unlikely activists,” says Bridges. Mississippi sharecroppers, they moved to New Orleans when she was 4; her father a service station attendant, her mother a housewife. The oldest of five children, Bridges was the likely suspect when the NAACP, still battling to integrate schools nationwide, came knocking six years after the 1954 ruling.

“They came into poor neighborhoods … and went door-to-door, asking if anyone had a 6-year-old they’d be willing to send to an all-white school,” recounts Bridges, an author, public speaker and philanthropist.

About 100 kids were tested; six passed. Two schools were chosen — three kids per school.

“Before the time to go, two of the kids assigned to my school dropped out. I was left to attend school alone.

“Everyone in the city knew schools were going to be integrated that day. So white parents stayed outside after dropping off kids. When I arrived with the federal marshals sent by President Eisenhower, they rushed into the school and took their kids out,” she recounts.

“Every day, I would show up, and there were no kids, just me and my teacher in my classroom. Every day, I would be escorted by marshals past a mob of people protesting and boycotting the school. This went on for a whole year.

“I remember what it was like at age 6, not really understanding what was going on around me, but having all these grown-up thoughts running through my head about what I was facing, why this was happening. The majority of my work the past 20 years has been about the power of children, how we as adults underestimate them,” she says.

“I can’t help but think King was fighting so people like myself  could have the right to go into those schools, but 50 years after his assassination, our schools are still not equal. Today, it’s more about public school funding, rather than the color of your skin.”

If you are interested in this story, you’ll want to watch Sun-Times columnists Mary Mitchell (left) and Maudlyne Ihejirika talk about their jobs as reporters approaching the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. This is part of an ongoing video series we call “Working the Story.”