Getting an education

Ruby Bridges, flanked by US Marshals, on her first day of school in 1960

This week I read the fascinating and terrifying story of Ruby Bridges. Ruby was born in 19 54 and grew up in Louisiana, USA, in the midst of the civil rights movement. When she was born, schools in Louisiana were segregated – black children and white children did not attend the same schools. This practice had been declared unconstitutional just before she was born, but it took six years for the first black child to attend an all-white school. Ruby was that child.

In early 1960, she passed the entrance test to attend William Frantz Elementary School – an all-white primary school. Ruby’s walk to school on her first day was big news. A crowd gathered, chanting and waving placards. One sign read: “All I want for Christmas is a clean white school.” One woman held up a miniature coffin with a black doll in it. Ruby was protected from the angry crowd by four Federal Marshals. She was six years old.

All the white parents pulled their children out of the school. All the teachers refused to teach whilst there was a black child enrolled at the school – except one. One teacher, Barbara Henry, refused to be intimidated and taught Ruby alone, in her own class, “as if she were teaching a whole class.” On Ruby’s second day at school, one white parent walked his five-year-old daughter through the angry mob, saying, “I simply want the privilege of taking my child to school.” Following his example, more parents brought their children to school over the following days, although Ruby continued to be taught by Barbara Henry in a class on her own. She would not be taught in the same class as white children until the following year. Throughout that time she was only able to eat food she had brought with her from home, due to threats to poison her school meals.

The American artist, Norman Rockwell, commemorated Ruby’s walk to school in his painting The Problem We All Live With. When he became President, Barack Obama hung the painting outside the Oval Office as a reminder that the courage of a six-year-old black girl and her white teacher paved the way for a black man to eventually become president.

Ruby Bridges visiting the White House to see her portrait hanging outside the Oval Office with President Obama, and reflecting on her experiences

Reading Ruby’s story this week reminded me of another inspirational young woman who stood up for her right to be educated: Malala Yousafzai. Malala grew up in an area of Pakistan where the Taliban had outlawed the education of girls, believing that only boys had the right to an education. Malala, like Ruby Bridges and Barbara Henry, refused to be intimidated and continued to attend school. On October 9th 2012, in retaliation for her activism, a Taliban gunman shot Malala in the head in an attempt to assassinate her.

Malala Yousafzai in 2014

Malala survived. She was flown to Birmingham where she recovered, eventually attending an English school in Edgbaston and going on to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University. She graduated in 2020. Throughout that time, Malala has been a prominent activist campaigning for the right to an education – a right which she nearly died for.

In this country we take it for granted that every child is entitled to a good, free education at school. We don’t stop to question it. We take it for granted that all children are welcome in our schools, no matter their background, the colour of their skin, their religious beliefs, first language, or where their family comes from. This is accepted as normal. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that we are very lucky to live in a society where this happens – because it doesn’t happen everywhere. We must remember to continue to defend the importance of getting an education. And we shouldn’t take it for granted.

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