Monday, September 15, 2014

Literature on Civil Rights for Younger Readers

This past week Ruby Bridges celebrated her 60th birthday. It is 54 years since Ruby famously became the first African American child to attend a desegregated former all-white elementary school in the American South.

Ruby Bridges was born in Mississippi on September 8, 1954. That year the United States handed down its landmark decision ordering the integration of public schools. Previously black students were not allowed to attend the same schools as white children.

Ruby had grown up on a farm that her grandparents sharecropped.  But her father heard that there were better opportunities for his family in the city so they moved to New Orleans. Her Dad began work at a service station and her mother worked at nights to make ends meet.

When the US federal court ordered that New Orleans public schools were finally to be forced to desegregate, there was an opportunity for black children to attend regular schools. In the spring of 1960 Ruby took a test, along with other black kindergarteners in the city, to see which children would be able go to an integrated school at the start of the school year in September. Ruby was chosen to attend William Frantz Public School in First Grade. While her mother was keen to do this, her father was afraid that this would bring problems for them as a family.

Her parents argued and prayed about it and eventually her mother convinced her father that for Ruby’s sake, and that of all black children, they should do it. Just six children were chosen to be integrated. On November 14, 1960 four of the six chosen decided to attend the previously white only schools.

On the morning of November 14 federal marshals drove her mother and Ruby just five blocks to William Frantz School. Two marshals walked in front, and two behind as she entered school.  As they arrived at school her mother said to her "Ruby Nell, don't be afraid. There might be some people upset outside, but I'll be with you."

While people shouted and shook their fist when they got out of the car, they walked through the crowd and up the steps into the. Ruby spent the whole day sitting in the principal's office. At the end of the day the marshals drove them home, and this was repeated the next day.

On the second day Ruby A met her white teacher Mrs. Henry. The next day Ruby went just with the marshals. Her mother reminded her, "Remember, if you get afraid, say your prayers. You can pray to God anytime, anywhere. He will always hear you."

Above: Protestors in New Orleans (Ruby Bridges Foundation)
As the news spread militant segregationists took to the streets in protest, and riots erupted all over the city. Her parents shielded her as best they could, but Ruby knew problems had come because she was going to the white school. Her father was fired from his job, her family wasn't allowed to shop at the local grocery store and her grandparents in Mississippi were made to leave the land they had sharecropped for 25 years.

But as the year went on, Ruby did well.  The more time she spent with her teacher Mrs Henry the better she coped. In her words “…I grew to love her. I wanted to be like her.” Neither Ruby nor her teacher missed a single day of school that year. The crowd outside the school each day dwindled to just a few protestors, and before long it was June and the school year ended for summer. The next year there were no protests.

Some Key Literature

If you'd like to share Ruby Bridge’s inspiring story with the children in your life, there are several excellent books about her. Here are some.

The Story Of Ruby Bridges for ages 4 to 8. This book was written by child psychiatrist Robert Coles who volunteered to give counselling to the Bridge family. He met with Ruby weekly and later wrote the book to make children more aware of Ruby's story.

'Ruby Bridges Goes to Story' by Ruby Bridges. This is written for children aged 5 to 8 years.  It is Ruby's own account of her extraordinary experiences as a child.
'Through My Eyes' by Ruby Bridges. This is the wonderful memoir that Ruby Bridges wrote for readers 6 to 12 years of age.

There is also a wonderful highly awarded film about the story of Ruby Bridges which is titled simply 'Ruby Bridges'. It is for children seven and up. 
Other books to read with or to children about Civil Rights

'Coretta Scott' by Ntozake Shange and illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

Walking many miles to school in the dusty road, young Coretta knew about the unfairness of life in the south of America. And yet she had a desire to be treated with equality and her life proved to be inspirational.

'Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice' by Phillip Hoose.

This multi-award winning book - including being named as a Newbery Honour book in 2010 - is about Claudette Colvin. On March 2, 1955, this inspirational teenager, fed up with the daily injustices of Jim Crow segregation, refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Instead of being celebrated as Rosa Parks would be just nine months later, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin found herself shunned by her classmates and dismissed by community leaders. Undaunted, a year later she dared to challenge segregation again as a key plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that struck down the segregation laws of Montgomery and swept away the legal underpinnings of the Jim Crow South.

'Rosa Parks: My Story' by Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks is best known for the day she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, sparking the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Yet there is much more to her story than this one act of defiance. In this straightforward, compelling autobiography, Rosa Parks talks candidly about the civil rights movement and her active role in it. Her dedication is inspiring; her story is unforgettable.

'One Crazy Summer' by Rita Williams-Garcia

Set during one of the most tumultuous years in recent American history, One Crazy Summer is the heartbreaking, funny tale of three girls who travel to Oakland, California, in 1968 in search of the mother who abandoned them. It's an unforgettable story told by a distinguished author of books for children and teens, Rita Williams-Garcia.

The Story of Negro League Baseball is the story of gifted athletes and determined owners; of racial discrimination and international sportsmanship; of fortunes won and lost; of triumphs and defeats on and off the field. It is a perfect mirror for the social and political history of black America in the first half of the twentieth century.  

'The Slave Dancer' by Paula Fox

This book tells the story of a boy called Jessie Bollier who witnessed first-hand the savagery of the African slave trade. The book not only includes an historical account, but it also touches upon the emotional conflicts felt by those involved in transporting the slaves from Africa to other parts of the world. The book received the Newbery Medal in 1974.

'The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights' by Carole Boston and illustrated by Tim Ladwig

Since the earliest days of slavery, African Americans have called on their religious faith in the struggle against oppression.  In this book the Beatitudes -- from Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount -- form the backdrop for Carole Boston Weatherford's powerful free-verse poem that traces the African American journey from slavery to civil rights.

Tim Ladwig's stirring illustrations showcase a panorama of heroes in this struggle, from the slaves shackled in the hold of a ship to the first African American president taking his oath of office on the steps of the United States Capitol.


Ruby Bridges, now Ruby Bridges Hall, still lives in New Orleans with her husband, and their four sons. For 15 years she worked as a travel agent, and for a time was a full-time parent. Today, she is chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which she formed in 1999. This is designed to foster "the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences".


1. ‘The Education of Ruby Nell’ by Ruby Bridges Hall, fromGuideposts’, March 2000. Downloaded 14th Sept 2014.

2. ‘Ruby Nell Bridges Hall’ Wikipedia, downloaded 14th Sept 2014.

3. Bridges Hall, Ruby. Through My Eyes, Scholastic Press, 1999.

4. The Ruby Bridges Foundation. Viewed 14th Sept 2014 .

5. The ‘A Mighty Girl’ website is a wonderful place to go for resources. It was developed for those interested in supporting and celebrating girls. It is a resource site that points to varied resources including books, toys, music, and movies.


Mia said...

I wanted to share my Civil Rights experience with you! I met Ruby Bridges!

Trevor Cairney said...

Lucky you Mia!!