When Marley Dias set out to collect books that featured Black girl protagonists, she was looking for stories about people like Ruby Bridges.
In November 1960—60 years ago this month—Bridges walked to school with four federal marshals surrounding her. At age six she became the first Black student to attend William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. The marshals had been dispatched there to protect her. Like other students who integrated schools across the south, Bridges came face to face with a furious white mob outside the building. Rather than have their children share a classroom with her, white parents pulled their kids from school. Bridges learned alone with a teacher.
Decades later Dias would hear about Bridges’s experience in class, and she’d learn more about her in the stories she makes it a point to read and share. Dias is the founder of the #1000BlackGirlBooks initiative, author of the book Marley Gets It Done, and host of Bookmarks on Netflix. She’s also 15.
Earlier this month Bridges released her own book (her third, with more to come) called This Is Your Time. Its cover is a reprint of the Norman Rockwell painting that shows her wearing a white dress, holding a textbook, walking past a wall scrawled with hate speech.
“I think what protected me then was the innocence of a child,” Bridges explains to Dias when the two meet over Zoom just after the book’s release. “Living in New Orleans I was accustomed to Mardi Gras; I saw the mob outside, and I thought it was Mardi Gras. The test that I was forced to take was set up so that I would fail it, but I didn’t. I thought that I was so super smart, that I was going from first grade to college, so I was excited about that.”
It wasn’t until a boy told her that his mother had barred him from playing with her, calling her a slur, that she understood what was really happening.
“When he said that, it was like the blinders were taken off at that point,” she recalls. “He made it make sense to me. I knew why I was the only kid there in the school. I then knew it wasn’t Mardi Gras, and I also knew it wasn’t college.”
Here, Bridges and Dias reflect on being brave, finding allies, and the importance of representation.
Marley Dias: It’s such an honor for me to meet you. I am so excited.
Ruby Bridges: Well, this is an honor and a pleasure. It seems you’ve been a busy girl! Tell me more about what you do.
When I was in fifth grade, which was about five years ago, I really, really loved to read. I’d always loved school, but my teachers never had books that had Black girls like me as the main character. Even though we read all the time, I never saw myself as the hero or the princess, or the superhero, and it bothered me a lot. I decided to start a campaign called #1000BlackGirlBooks where I would collect and donate books where Black girls were the main character. Now, over the past four years, I’ve collected 13,000 books.
You know, I never, never saw people that looked like me in books when I was young. Not until much, much later on. I remember a very dear friend of mine, she was like you. She was an adult, but she started her own bookstore, but it was out of the trunk of her car. Somehow she had collected all of these books that were about people of color. I remember the first time when she opened up that trunk and showed it to me, I was like, “Oh my goodness.” I couldn’t believe it.
When I started my campaign, I had no idea that I would be helping others or that I could help change the world. Did you know your impact? Were you aware of the repercussions of integration 60 years ago?
Absolutely not. The truth of the matter is that I was six years old, and I really didn’t know anything about racism. Sometimes people find that hard to believe, but I didn’t know. It was the law that we were segregated, so I went to an all-Black elementary school. I loved school. I had lots of friends, but everybody looked like me.
It was pretty shocking when I climbed those stairs and integrated William Frantz School, even though there weren’t any other kids in my class; I remember the very first time seeing Mrs. Henry, who was my teacher, and thinking, Oh, my God, she’s white, because I had never seen a white teacher before.
Because she looked exactly like the people outside [who were protesting integration], I was a little bit hesitant. I didn’t know what to expect from her. But Marley, that experience shaped me into who I am today, because Mrs. Henry extended her hand, asked me to come into the classroom, and she began to teach me. I soon came to realize that yes, she looked exactly like those people outside, but she was totally different from them. That’s because she showed me her heart. I knew that she cared about me, I knew that it didn’t matter to her what I looked like. She and I became fast friends. She was my best friend.
I learned a very valuable lesson in that classroom at six years old. I always like to point out that that lesson was the same one that Dr. King tried to teach all of us, and that is we should never look at a person and judge them by the color of their skin. You have to allow yourself an opportunity to get to know them, and then you can judge them by what’s inside, what’s in their heart.
Like you, I totally believe in diversity. No matter what we look like, what race or nationality, we do need to see ourselves. We need to know that we too have made a contribution to this country in some way, because it inspires people. I know how you feel; I’m passionate about your work and what you do. But no, to answer your question, I had no idea the impact that I would have on other young people.
Your experience is extremely well-documented. I’ve had experiences of watching movies about you, videos about you, seeing Norman Rockwell paintings about you, seeing all of these things, and I think it’s really important to notice the amount of violence that surrounds you in these moments, and the protection that you needed as a young Black girl in the face of racism. Although we don’t all experience those kinds of egregious shows of violence, a lot of young Black girls are still being mistreated because of the color of their skin. How do you think that educators like Mrs. Henry or parents can protect Black girls and keep them healthy, alive, and well?
You know what? The first thing that I think is extremely important, it should come from home. Because it’s very hard to protect our young people, our babies, our kids, from what’s out there in the world. We can’t keep all of you in a bubble. There is good and evil in the world. Those of us who consider ourselves good, we have to stand up and be counted so that we know that there’s more good than evil in the world.
But make no mistake, it is out there. There’s no real protecting you from it. The only thing that I think grownups—whether it be your parents or someone very, very close to you, like your grandparents—can do is tell you that you are special, that you should feel good about yourself. And then when you go out into the world, it won’t really matter to you as much what other people think of you, as long as you feel good about yourself.
I think that that’s what our kids need before we open the door and let them out into the world. Because until we all come together to unite, to make this world a better place, that element is out there. That is what we’ve seen in this year. It is out there, as it was out there in 1960. You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror, and know that you are gorgeous and that you are loved, and that no matter what people say, you are going to feel that way.
What kind of skills or tips and tricks do you think you could give to young people to be brave, even when it’s hard?
People tell me all the time, “Oh, you are so brave.” I used to hear it all the time, and to be honest with you, I didn’t feel that way. Even at six, I didn’t feel like I was really being brave. In a sense, in hindsight, I was. In the beginning I didn’t know that all of those people were out there to keep me out of the school. I wasn’t aware that they could have really harmed me. That didn’t dawn on me until much, much later.
But for me, I’m the kind of person that I need to know the truth. I have to know the truth and be able to process it and know how to deal with it, and then I can walk on. I can walk ahead with my head held high. If you think about it that way, maybe that does make me brave, but I didn’t feel that way. Today, as an adult, I don’t feel brave. But what I do know is that when I’m backed into a corner, I can’t stay in the corner.
It is. That’s 100% brave. Of course it’s brave. All the time, bravery is accidental. I think a lot of the time, you have an automatic human reaction to push through, and even if you don’t know, sometimes you take steps to do things that are really amazing, which is the beauty of being a human.
Exactly. That would be my advice. Close your eyes, say your prayers, and come out of the corner.
I love that advice, and I know that a lot of kids that will read this will take that advice. I think you offer a super-unique perspective, because a lot of the Civil Rights leaders that I’ve learned about in school were in their 30s and 40s when they started to become involved in change, whether directly or indirectly, but you are part of a long line of Civil Rights greats that really allow me to pursue my dreams to change the world. What kind of social and political changes do you think that the next generation of activists can bring? Because although Black people technically on paper have our rights and the same liberties and freedoms of other racial groups in this country, we don’t always experience having our rights and freedoms the same way.
Well, it’s important that we understand that there’s never going to be one race on this planet. This planet belongs to all of us. So everybody has to at some point come to terms with that. And then I believe that young people should be united and understand that we have a common enemy. That common enemy is evil.
We have to come together. Once we come together, then we will be a force to be reckoned with against evil and injustice. You have to start to think about things that way and process that and try to reach across the aisle and become one, because united we stand and divided we will fall. No matter what your cause is, you have to somehow reach across the aisle and extend a hand so that we all become stronger together.
I know a lot of the people who really understand the impact and the importance of what you’ve done are educators. When it comes to Black history, you were probably one of the most well-known young figures of the moment. You and John Lewis. But outside of the Civil Rights movement, we don’t learn a lot about other Black figures in history. What do you think educators can do to better incorporate Black history into the curriculum, and to break down this divide between Black history versus American history, which we know is not true?
Educators should want to teach the truth, and their hands are pretty much tied if the textbooks that they’re using are obsolete, or if they’re tied to policies where you have to teach what they pass on to you to teach; where you have a lesson plan that comes from a higher source and you have to stay within those guidelines. In private and independent schools, they have a little bit more leeway to go out and dig up their own research and teach how they wish. Educators have to want to be able to teach the truth, and they too have to come together and they have to try and fight to have policy changed so that they’re able to do that.
But there’s also more than one way or one place to teach. I learned so much from my grandmother, just walking in the woods with her and sitting on the bank of a creek because she liked to fish. Oh, my God, the lessons that I learned from her. There’s all kinds of ways that people can learn. It doesn’t have to just be in the classroom. If a person really wants to teach and educate, then they have to become the kind of educators who are innovative and creative.
I think so many teachers will appreciate that. To all the teachers who do that already, I know it can be difficult work, but as a student that’s had some of those teachers, I appreciate what they do so much more because I know that they extend themselves and their experiences to me.
Absolutely. Well, thank you so much, Marley. At some point I hope that our paths cross again, and who knows, maybe we’ll be able to do some work together. I commend you on what you’re doing. It is so inspirational, even for me, to be able to look back and see young people like you who have picked up the mantle and moved it forward. I feel like my work is not in vain whenever I’m able to see something like that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Mattie Kahn is the culture director of Glamour.
Originally Appeared on Glamour