Ruby Bridges' courage remains a moment enshrined in history: ANALYSIS

Cokie Roberts puts the story of Ruby Bridges in contemporary context.

November 14, 2020, 5:12 PM

This story originally ran on Aug. 16, 2017, in the wake of the Charlottesville, Virginia, riots. Nov. 14, 2020 is the 60th anniversary of Ruby Bridges, then 6, becoming the first African American child to desegregate William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.

Would Ruby Bridges have been able to go to school safely if Donald Trump were president?

It's in our history books now -- that picture of a brave little Black girl, book bag in hand, escorted by four federal marshals into an all-white school in New Orleans. Norman Rockwell's version of that iconic moment even hung in the Obama White House.

It's history now, but history I lived through it in New Orleans in 1960 where the federal judge who ordered the schools to comply with the law of the land was one of the key players in promoting racial integration throughout the 1950s and 1960s. J. Skelly Wright was one of the heroes of the civil rights movement.

U.S. Deputy Marshals escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, in November 1960.

But his heroism came with a price. Those people we saw over the weekend shouting their hateful slogans in Charlottesville, Virginia, were out in force in the South in that era. That beautiful first grade girl had to walk through screaming haters, haters just like the ones we saw in Virginia, as she made her way to school. She spent her first year in a classroom of one, with no white child willing, or allowed, to join her.

What incredible courage that took. Think of it. That child went every day to school with a posse surrounding her. In later years, those marshals wondered at her fortitude. And what courage it took for her parents to persist in their insistence that Ruby receive an equal education to that of the white children her age.

The Bridges family paid the price -- threatened by thugs, fired by bosses. So did the judge. President John F. Kennedy was ready to appoint Wright to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but feared the reaction of southern senators. So the judge came to Washington as a member of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He had to leave New Orleans when the haters threatened not just him and his wife but also their only child.

Those are the people we saw marching in Charlottesville this weekend. People who threatened a first grader on her way to school. People who vowed to destroy a federal judge insisting that the law be followed. Those are the people Trump referred to as "very fine people."

Ruby Nell Bridges at age 6, was the first African American child to attend William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans after Federal courts ordered the desegregation of public schools.
Bettmann Archive

We have come to rely on our presidents as the men (a woman someday, please God) who stand for the principle that the country protects all its people. We saw President Dwight Eisenhower call in the National Guard to surround children in Arkansas so they could walk into school unharmed. We watched Kennedy assemble hundreds of U.S. marshals as James Meredith enrolled in the University of Mississippi.

Would Trump do the same? Would he mobilize the power of the federal government to assure the safety of a Black child who simply wanted to go to school?

After the events of the last few days, it's hard to believe that he would. When faced with the kind of hate that we had hoped was behind us as a country, Trump failed to condemn it with the force that we have come to expect from our presidents. That failure of moral leadership will live with us forever, just like that picture of Ruby Bridges.