Ruby Bridges was just 6 years old when her tiny footprints left an indelible impression on the march toward racial equality nearly 50 years ago.
The New Orleans native shared her story with young people Friday as the keynote speaker for the seventh annual African and African-American History and Diversity Conference in McKinley High School, where Bridges urged them to follow in her footsteps and those of the other early pioneers in the civil rights movement.
"My message from this day forward to kids is [that] this can be a new movement . . . and you can lead us," Bridges said.
It was on Nov. 14, 1960, that Bridges, surrounded by armed federal marshals, was escorted past a mob of angry protesters who did not want the black girl to integrate William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. On that day, Bridges said, 500 white pupils were removed from the school by their parents. The next day, she was led to a classroom where she was greeted by a lone white teacher.
"I had never seen a white teacher before," Bridges said.
"I didn't know what to expect. And keep in mind that she looked to me like all of the angry white people I had seen protesting outside the school," she added.
But over the next few months, Bridges developed a special bond with the teacher. There were no other pupils in her class.
"She was the nicest teacher I ever had," Bridges recalled. "She made school so much fun, I never missed a day that year."
Bridges said it was that experience that taught her not to judge people by the color of their skin. But even as a pioneer, herself, in the civil rights movement, Bridges said she labored under the misapprehension that the struggle was between black and white people.
Years later, she learned of the others who participated in the movement -- some who paid with their lives -- including two white civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman who, along with James Chaney, who was black, were abducted, murdered and buried by Ku Klux Klansmen in Mississippi in 1964.
"These were people who stood up for what was right and paid with their lives. All of those people helped us get where we are today," she added.