Every day, like many American parents, Lucille Bridges walked her first-grader Ruby to school.
But unlike other parents, she did so flanked by federal marshalls, as aggressive mobs of white people, vehemently opposed to racially integrated schools, hurled slurs at her and her daughter.
On Tuesday, Ruby announced the death of her mother on her Instagram account, noting that the country had lost a hero.
“Brave, progressive, a champion for change. She helped alter the course of so many lives by setting me out on my path as a six-year-old little girl,” Bridges wrote. “Our nation lost a Mother of the Civil Rights Movement today. And I lost my mom.”
“I love you and am grateful for you. May you Rest In Peace,” she added.
Lucille Bridges was 86 years old.
Ruby has credited her mother with being the catalyst for her attending the formerly all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Not only was Ruby the first Black child to attend any white school in New Orleans, she was the first to integrate an all-white elementary school in the entire South.
According to WGNO-TV, Lucille Bridges, the daughter of sharecroppers, didn’t finish an elementary school education and wanted her daughter to receive better educational opportunities than she did.
Ruby’s father, Abon, was hesitant to send his daughter to Fantz elementary school, but Lucille advocated for Ruby to break the color barrier, six years after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional.
The decision came at a great cost to the family. On top of the harassment Ruby faced on the way to school (white parents withdrew their children from the school, and Ruby was taught her lessons in an empty classroom), Abon lost his job and grocery stores in the area refused to sell their goods to Lucille, according to the National Women’s History Museum. Ruby’s grandparents were also evicted from the farm they had lived on for 25 years.
Ruby was immortalized in a famous Norman Rockwell painting depicting the violence she endured as a 6-year-old girl. The painting was recently referenced in a viral meme featuring Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the first Black person to attain such an office, as well as the first woman.
The civil rights icon recently spoke to People magazine about her mother’s influence while promoting her new book This Is Your Time. She notes that, prior to attending the school, her mother didn’t try to explain or set expectations for her—a decision she says she understands.
“What would you say? ‘You’re about to go to a new school. There’s going to be lots of people out there screaming and yelling at you...but you know, I’m going to be with you and you’ll have a great day,’” Bridges said. “You just couldn’t do that, and so my parents didn’t try to explain it to me.”
What her parents did tell her was surprisingly mundane, given the stakes: “You’re going to a new school today and you better behave.”
“And that was it. And I think everything else was left to my imagination,” Bridges continued. “I always say that what protected me was just having the innocence of a child. And so being a parent myself, now in hindsight, I wouldn’t try to explain that to my 6-year-old.”