As a 6-year-old on the way to her New Orleans school, Ruby Bridges did not understand that the mob outside was waiting for her any more than she understood that the four U.S. marshals escorting her were there for her protection.
"I actually thought when I turned the corner, 'I'm at Mardi Gras,'" Bridges said.
Not realizing she was pioneering desegregation in Louisiana schools when she started at the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School, Bridges walked past the angry crowd on Nov. 14, 1960, and joined the ranks of other Civil Rights icons such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. On Thursday, she shared what the experience was like and offered her insight on today's racial climate to an audience gathered at the annual MLK Breakfast on Texas A&M's campus.
"Kids know nothing about racism," said Bridges in the Memorial Student Center Bethancourt Ballroom. "The reason racism is around today is because we keep it alive."
Originally, Bridges' family was among 150 families who agreed to help desegregate two all-white schools in Louisiana, but that number was whittled down to six after an admissions test and then to four when the two other children assigned to Ruby's school dropped out.
"Neighbors would come over and congratulate my parents. My mother seemed so proud -- 'Oh, she's so smart. She passed this test.' And so being 6, in my mind, I thought that test meant I was so smart that I could now leave first grade and go to college," said Bridges, prompting laughter from the crowd.
She sat in the principal's office and watched as hundreds of upset parents escorted their children home over the course of her first day. Some teachers quit. Some families never brought their children back to the school, and by Bridges' second day, she was the only student in her class.
"I remember thinking my mom took me to class too early," she said. "And indeed she had -- years too early."
Bridges, who remained the only person in her class for the rest of the year, said not having friends in first grade was difficult. She said one of the hardest parts was smelling the food in cafeteria but not being able to join the other students, and she remembers throwing away her food in hopes of being able to join the other students.
Despite this, she said she loved school overall because of the efforts of her teacher, Barbara Henry.
"I realized that she looked like the people outside, but she was different," Bridges said. "She wasn't like them at all. She showed me her heart, and she was like another mom," said Bridges, adding later that the experience of meeting Henry instilled in her the concept of not judging someone by the way they look.
Sitting in the audience, Achia Andrus, a Texas A&M senior interested in pursuing a career in education, said she aspires to be the type of teacher Henry was. Andrus said seeing how young Bridges is was a reminder that America is not too far removed from desegregation.
"When you think of the Civil Rights Movement you think, 'Oh this was so many years ago. We've progressed since then.' But that really wasn't a long time ago," said Andrus, adding that the effects of segregation can still be seen in schools.
In his introduction, Texas A&M President Michael K. Young said the event was a time to reflect on how far society has come since the Civil Rights Movement and how far society has to go.
"This election I think, has allowed many of us to reflect on the fact that the progress has not been as much as we might have hoped or anticipated and how much more we have to do, but what gives me hope is I sit here and look out at this group today, knowing so many of you, knowing what you stand for, knowing what you are doing. I have great hope and gratitude that you are here at this university."
Prentice Powell, the spoken word poet who presented before Bridges at the breakfast, said the he sees a lot of anger among people while on tour and has received death threats for his activist-minded opinion.
"We have to be honest about the climate in the country," Powell said. "We cannot sit here and clap for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and then when we leave here say bad things about others. It makes no sense, and you are a hypocrite if you do."
Reflecting on today's inauguration, Bridges and Powell drew on a message King often promoted and called for people to love and respect those around them.
Bridges said the time she met with President Barack Obama was deeply meaningful, but those hoping to move history forward cannot rely on a government official to drive that movement.
"When we think about the Civil Rights Movement -- we, as African-Americans -- that was not something that could wait. So people came together. Those who believed that it was time to move the country forward, they came together," Bridges said. "No matter what your beliefs are, if you want to see a better country, you're not going to do it separately. We have to come together, and we can't wait on one commander in chief."