A sea of purple flooded the playground at Stonegate Elementary in Irvine as students walked around campus together in honor of a little girl who, 63 years ago, had taken the first steps to desegregate an all-White elementary school in the South.
“I felt really encouraged because Ruby Bridges marched through a bunch of angry protesters to go to school,” said fifth-grader Serah Stephan. “We walked for her because she set an example and she helped us to be equal. The walk made me feel like even if we are feeling down, we can walk through it.”
The 10-year-old was one of hundreds of Stonegate students to participate in a walk to honor Ruby Bridges, who on Nov. 14, 1960, at 6 years old became the first Black child to attend the White-only William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. As the small girl walked into the school with U.S. Marshals at her side, she was met with hateful protesters and racist signs.
California proclaimed Nov. 14 to be Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day in 2021 after fifth-graders at Martin Elementary School in San Francisco implored legislators to commemorate Bridge’s courage. According to the Ruby Bridges Foundation, more than 340,000 people last year walked in her honor.
Stonegate students from first to sixth grade divided into three groups and looped around the soccer field for 15 minutes while kids’ versions of bops like Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” blared from the speaker. Almost every student had on purple (Bridges’ favorite color) in support of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, ranging from Lakers jerseys to lavender floral dresses.
Manasvi Govindu, 11, said she hopes the school honors Bridges’ legacy every year. Tuesday marked the first time Stonegate participated in the event.
“Ruby Bridges is a really great person, and she was brave enough to walk even when people opposed her,” Govindu said. “She made a difference even though she was small.”
Prior to walking, students had Bridges’ book, “I Am Ruby Bridges,” read to them, principal Deanna Rutter said. Older students watched a Today interview from last year where Bridges shared her experiences.
“One of the biggest things about the day is that it’s a day of discussion and dialogue,” Rutter said. “They talked about how Bridges, as a 6-year-old, was able to be part of what made it possible for children of different races to be in school together.”
“The belief that an individual can make a difference would be the single thing I hope they would walk away with,” she said. “That you can be young and still do powerful things.”
Irvine Unified School District has made creating “civil and inclusive school communities where children cultivate empathy and challenge prejudice” its mission for the school year. IUSD mandates each of its schools to develop an Equity, Excellence, Diversity and Inclusion plan to create a school culture that challenges inequity.
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“Our goal this year was working on anti-bias,” Rutter said. “Our job as a school site is to work on our school culture so that we’re building a school culture that promotes a sense of belonging.”
Earlier this year, Stonegate founded a chapter of No Place for Hate, a student-led initiative that’s part of the Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish organization that fights against antisemitism and other forms of hate. Through sharing about the school’s No Place for Hate campaign with the community, Rutter said several parents learned about the Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day and were eager to have Stonegate students participate.
Julie Belmore, an organizer of Stonegate’s Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day whose third-grade son, Jack, participated in the walk, said the point of the event was for students to understand that there is “no room in this world for treating anyone differently.”
Belmore, who went to South San Francisco High School not far from the elementary school where the movement to honor Bridges was born, said she hopes the event involves more students and community members next year.
“This is all about inclusivity,” Belmore said. “Somebody paved the way for them, and that’s all they need to understand. Every child in this school could pave the way for someone else, for whatever cause.”