Music History #19: "Ruby's Shoes"
Written by Lori McKenna (1989)
Performed by Lori McKenna
When singer-songwriter Lori McKenna’s son was in second grade, he did a book report on Ruby Bridges, the African-American elementary school student who famously crossed the desegregation lines in 1960.
To help her son, McKenna came up with a song about Ruby. “I actually wrote that for his extra credit,” McKenna said. “It was his oral presentation of that book report. He got an A, by the way. That song has just been so good to me, because I ended up meeting Ruby Bridges, and she came and met my kids.”
McKenna also got to play the song on Oprah in 2005, which made it a viral hit on iTunes, and brought attention to both McKenna and Bridges.
Here’s Lori McKenna’s recording of the song:
Ruby Bridges was born in 1954, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the decision that schools must desegregate. The ruling was made in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. Thirteen African-American parents in Topeka filed suit on behalf of their children, who were being made to travel extra miles just to attend their segregated schools. Of course, behind the practical matter of distance was the more urgent issue of civil rights.
For 60 years preceding the Brown case, segregation in schools in the U.S. had been informed by another Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson. That 1896 ruling held that as long as the separate facilities for separate races were equal, segregation didn’t violate the Fourteenth Amendment (“no State shall . . . deny any person . . the equal protection of the laws.”) But many of the facilities were not equal. Often, the black schools were housed in run-down buildings, and prone to regular shortages of everything from books to supplies to qualified teachers.
When Ruby Bridges was two, her parents moved the family from Mississippi to New Orleans, in search of better jobs. In 1959, Ruby started kindergarten in a segregated school. The Supreme Court ruling was still a year away from becoming law in Louisiana.
As she prepared to begin first grade, Ruby was one of six black children given the opportunity to attend an all-white school. In the end, she would be the only one who took the chance.
Initially, Ruby’s parents disagreed on the matter. Ruby’s mother wanted her daughter to have the advantages that she never had. But with the opposition to desegregation roiling through the south, her father worried about endangering the family. Finally, he agreed that his daughter’s education should come first.
On the morning of November 14, 1960, Ruby and her mother approached William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. They were escorted by four Federal Marshals. Local police and officials had been unwilling to ensure Ruby’s safety. Crowds of protesters waved signs and chanted, “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.”
Ruby didn’t realize that she was making history. She has said, “People were waving their hands and yelling. I remember police officers being on horseback and motorcycles. So I actually thought I was in the midst of a parade. I thought it was Mardi Gras that day.”
She spent most of that first day in the principal’s office, while chaos rippled around and through the school. Only one courageous and compassionate teacher in the school was willing to take her on as a student. So that year, Ruby was in a class of one with Mrs. Barbara Henry. They did lessons together and played games inside at recess. They bonded as student and teacher, and as friends.
Meanwhile, Ruby’s family suffered for their courage. Her dad lost his job. Her mom was shunned by some store owners. And her grandparents were evicted from a farm in Mississippi where they’d been sharecroppers for 25 years.
As time passed, desegregation became more accepted, and Ruby eventually graduated from a fully integrated high school in New Orleans.
Today, Ruby Bridges Hall is a civil rights icon and activist. She’s received a Presidential Citizen’s medal. There’s an elementary school named after her in California. And since 1999, she has run the Ruby Bridges Foundation, whose motto is: “We believe racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.”