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“The problem we all live with”

Great story in today’s Chron about Lucille Bridges, the mother of Ruby Bridges, better known as the little girl in Norman Rockwell’s powerful and iconic painting The Problem We All Live With. Mrs. Bridges is now living in Houston after having been evacuated from New Orleans during Hurricans Katrina, and she got to see the original Rockwell painting for the first time at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, where it’s currently on loan.

When she was growing up, Lucille Bridges said, she wanted to go to school so bad that she’d cry. But her family share-cropped in Tylertown, Miss., and school was a luxury tasted only after the crops were in. Even that education stopped after eighth grade.

She wanted a better life for her children, so she and her husband, Abon Bridges, moved to New Orleans. He worked at a service station. She cleaned houses and worked nights in a chicken factory.

When the NAACP recruited black families willing to integrate white schools, Lucille argued with Abon until he agreed to sign on. Of 135 black children who took the school system’s entrance test, only six passed. The school board found grounds to reject one; one chose not to go; and three went to another school.

Only Ruby Bridges went to Frantz.

Lucille Bridges says she told her daughter only that she’d be going to a new school and that some people wouldn’t want her there. Ruby didn’t understand why the marshals were picking her up, or why the neighborhood joined to buy her new clothes.

The marshals arrived in three cars. Mother and daughter rode in the middle one, protected on both ends.

Roughly 400 angry whites stood outside Frantz. They threw eggs and screamed threats. The girl didn’t realize the mob had anything to do with her. She thought maybe it was Mardi Gras.

Her mother, though, understood why the marshals unbuttoned their suit jackets. She knew they wanted easy access to their guns.

The marshals escorted them from the cars, up the stairs, and into the principal’s office. Ruby spent the day scribbling in her tablet and talking to the marshals.

Throughout the day, white parents withdrew their children from the school. By the end of the day, almost all the pupils were gone.

After the marshals escorted Lucille and Ruby Bridges home, they stationed cars at the ends of the Bridges’ block. Lucille noticed that they were armed with machine guns.

The situation grew uglier still. The next day, 5,000 segregationists marched through the streets of New Orleans.

One of only a handful of children left at Frantz, Ruby was literally in a class by herself. A new teacher, fresh from Boston, agreed to teach her.

Abon Bridges’ boss fired him after he refused to remove his daughter from the school. The NAACP told him to go straight home, where he’d be safe.

But even there, the phone rang all night with anonymous threats.

Abon Bridges wanted to give up, to take Ruby out of the school. His wife insisted that she stay.

The NAACP found him a new job. But it was a year before the marshals thought it safe to leave the family’s home unguarded.

Over time, the Bridges family faded into obscurity. Children trickled back into Frantz, and Ruby Bridges became the first member of her family to graduate from high school – an integrated one. She became a travel agent, got married and had four sons.

I love happy endings. God bless you, Lucille and Ruby Bridges.

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4 Comments

  1. Prove Our Democracy with Paper Ballots says:

    Bravery Is Beautiful. Lucille and Ruby Bridges Are Beautiful.

    And, Rockwell who worried about being remembered as an illustrator rather than a serious fine artist, became that serious fine artist with this one work…when he stuck his neck out to record a moment of consequence and bravery which needed documenting so that we would again today remember.

    I can’t wait to see it.

  2. AnnaLisa says:

    Because of people like this, It would be dishonorable for me to take my education for granted.

  3. RawHide says:

    Reading that just made my day. Thanks for pointing it out Kuff, I wouldn’t have even thought to read it on my own.

  4. Jeb says:

    A great story to keep in mind. Particularly when folks are talking about using vouchers so that their kids won’t have to go to public schools.