A woman stands on a street in a Southern town and sees the past: A young black girl climbing into a car that will whisk her to a new, all-white school, and into American history.
The 6-year-old New Orleans girl doesn’t know what she faces; the woman, Ruby Bridges, knows too well. In 1960, Bridges was the child who was exalted and vilified as one of the first to break the back of segregation in a New Orleans public school.
She watched that year unfold again while visiting the set of the ABC movie “Ruby Bridges” (airing 7 p.m. Sunday on “The Wonderful World of Disney” with a taped introduction by President Clinton).
“When the car passed me, I tell you, it was so eerie,” said Bridges. “It was like being in the Twilight Zone. I was OK the whole time during filming, but the first time I saw the movie all pulled together, I broke down.”
Her childhood bravery was captured in a 1964 Norman Rockwell painting, “The Problem We All Live With,” which shows a tiny, soldierlike Ruby moving past a wall marred by thrown tomatoes and the epithet “nigger.” Four U.S. marshals march with her.
Now her contribution is on film. But as powerful as she considers it to be, Bridges notes some scenes were softened to make it palatable for young viewers.
“People need to know it was worse, much worse,” she said.
One example is the re-creation of the anti-integration mob that greeted Ruby (Chaz Monet) and her mother Lucielle (Lela Rochon of “Waiting to Exhale”) at the entrance to the William Frantz Elementary School.
Newsreel footage shows the faces of protesters twisted with anger - more viciousness than is seen in the movie. Bridges also calls attention to another scene in which a toy-like coffin is used to threaten Ruby.
“I have an 8-by-10 photo given to me by a friend at a news station. These crowds came by the busloads to the school and they had this coffin, a real baby coffin, nothing like what you see in the movie. And there’s a black baby (doll) in the coffin.”
Although the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in schools six years earlier, Bridges had to be driven to school daily by four U.S. marshals. White parents withdrew their children, leaving Ruby the sole pupil for a year in which teacher Barbara Henry, a transplanted Bostonian (Penelope Ann Miller), was her only companion.
Besides the dedicated Henry, young Ruby relied on now-famed child psychologist Robert Coles (author of the 1995 children’s book “The Ruby Bridges Story”) for support.
Bridges wonders how her mother could subject her to such an ordeal, no matter how worthy the cause.
“She said she never really knew exactly what she was getting into until she got back home after the first day, turned her television set on and saw that President Kennedy was talking about it and the whole world was looking. She said, ‘Oh, my God,”’ Bridges recalls.
Now married to New Orleans builder Malcolm Hall and the mother of four sons, including a 6-year-old, Bridges has asked herself whether she could do the same.
“I don’t think I could. … To send my 6-year-old to school, and I can’t stay there with him, and I’m going to wait and pray to see him in the afternoon. I just could not do that,” she said. “But I realize it was a different day, a different time.
“I think my mother just felt like she didn’t have an education and she wanted something better for her children, which most people want. And she felt this was the way to get it.”
Bridges, a consultant on the film, said her mother was not involved and hasn’t seen it.
The struggle for equal education and against racism is far from completed, Bridges said. She is doing her part with a cultural arts program at the school she integrated, funded with royalties from Coles’ book.
It’s a program she is seeking to expand to other money-strapped inner-city schools that have to forgo music and art education - the things that keep children “dreaming and hoping,” Bridges says.
She also challenges herself and others to defeat prejudice.
“We could be much further ahead if we would not pass this torch on, this racism. You and I may never get past whatever differences we have, but that doesn’t mean you have to teach your child to hate, and that I need to teach mine.”
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