Some of life's greatest lessons come from the most unexpected teachers. For US citizens in 1960, it was a 6-year-old girl.
Ruby Bridges was one of just six children in New Orleans that year to pass the notoriously difficult entrance exam designed to keep black kids out of otherwise all-white schools. The tests were a legacy of the ‘separate-but-equal' system that locked black children into a second-rate education. Racial segregation in public schools had been struck down by the US Supreme Court in 1954. But many schools defied the ruling any way they could.
Now Ruby was eligible to learn alongside her white peers at William Frantz Elementary. But on November 14, 1960, Ruby would run the gauntlet of harassment and intimidation all on her own. Of all the black kids to pass the exam, Ruby was the only one to show up for school that day.
Federal marshals were dispatched to escort her past a mob of angry white adults. They screamed racial slurs into the face of a little girl half their size dressed in crisp white ankle socks and carrying a new book bag. Some threw fruit, sullying her perfectly pressed dress. One brandished a black baby doll in a coffin.
But Ruby did not flinch.
Inside William Frantz, only one teacher was willing to instruct Ruby. Barbara Henry taught her every subject, including gym and music, in an empty classroom. Ruby ate lunch alone. She played with Mrs Henry at recess. Despite the isolation and daily hatred, Ruby never missed a day.
Outside William Frantz, Ruby’s parents were punished. Her father lost his job; her grandparents were evicted from the land they'd worked for decades. The Bridges were even banned from the local grocery story. But the family held firm.
By Ruby’s second year, the angry crowds had vanished. First, a few white parents joined Ruby on her walk to school. Then a few more. Though most refused to let their kids play with the first black child in the US South to attend an all-white school, Ruby had changed the course of history. She graduated from a fully desegregated high school 18 years later.
She now runs the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which promotes cultural understanding through community service.