Published September 05, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS – Civil rights icon Ruby Bridges, who as a 6-year-old helped end public school segregation in South, was reunited Thursday with one of the federal marshals who had escorted her past angry crowds so she could attend a previously all-white school.
Bridges, who in 1960 became the first black child to attend an all-white school in New Orleans, met with Charles Burks at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, which was filming the pair for its permanent exhibit called "The Power of Children." Burks, now 91, is the only one of the four marshals who escorted Bridges to and from school who is still alive.
"Thank you Charlie for doing what was right at a time when it might not have been the easiest thing to do," she told Burks.
Burks said escorting Bridges to school was a highlight of his life, adding that he supported the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that struck down segregation in public schools. Bridges was in first-grade when she started attending William Frantz Elementary School on Nov. 14, 1960, as the court-ordered integration of public schools began in New Orleans.
"It was a privilege to be able to do what I did, even though it was one of my duties. Everybody says it was just another job to do, but it was a wonderful job," said Burks, who lives in Logansport, Ind.
Before Thursday's meeting Bridges and Burks had reunited only once, in 1995, since 1960.
Bridges, now 58, said she didn't realize at the time the role she was playing in helping end segregation because her parents had not explained everything that was happening. She thought the loud crowds that gathered daily outside the school were taking part some sort of parade, such as Mardis Gras, and they didn't frighten her.
But Bridges, who still lives in New Orleans, did recall seeing a black doll in a baby's casket the crowd taunted her with, a haunting image she said gave her nightmares.
"I would dream that this coffin had wings and it would fly around my bed at night, and so it was a dream that happened a lot and that's what frightened me," she said.
Burks and the other marshals escorted the young Bridges to and from school for several weeks before local police took over that duty. Eventually the crowds dispersed and she no longer needed protection.
The first tense days outside the school were captured by Norman Rockwell in a painting that depicts a young black girl carrying textbooks and a ruler being led by marshals past a wall marred by a splattered tomato and a scrawled racial epithet.
Bridges, who went on to become a travel agent, said seeing that painting in her late teens made her realize her role in U.S. history.
"I didn't realize that it was actually an event that changed the face of education, that affected the wider world," she said.
Bridges said was happy she got to meet again with Burks to discuss their shared experience and record their memories for the museum's exhibit, which also highlights the lives of Anne Frank and Ryan White.
She said she hopes the exhibit can help children understand both U.S. history and the civil rights movement's victories and the work that still remains to overcome the nation's legacy of racism.
The pair hugged more than once during Thursday's reunion, sitting before two Associated Press photos, one showing Bridges entering the school and the other exiting it, both under the watchful eyes of Burks and the other marshals.
Burks, who has 11 great-grandchildren and last month celebrated he and wife Betty's 68th wedding anniversary, said he has framed copies of both photos in their north-central Indiana home.
"Every time I walk down the hall past those pictures, it reminds me of those days. It was something great and dramatic in my life. I tell my grandchildren it was one of the highlights of my life. And I'm glad I was involved."