Bridges was born during the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. Brown v. Board of Education was decided three months and twenty-two days before Bridges' birth. The famous court ruling declared the process of separating schools for black children and white children unconstitutional. Though the Brown v. Board of Education decision was finalized in 1954, southern states were extremely resistant to the decision that they must integrate for the six following years.
Bridges was the eldest of five children born to Abon and Lucille Bridges.
Bridges attended a segregated kindergarten in 1959.
In early 1960, Bridges was one of six black children in New Orleans to pass the test that determined whether they could go to the all-white William Frantz Elementary School.
In 1960, when Ruby was six years old, her parents responded to a request from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and volunteered her to participate in the integration of the New Orleans school system, even though her father was hesitant.
Judge J. Skelly Wright's court order for the first day of integrated schools in New Orleans on Monday, November 14, 1960, was commemorated by Norman Rockwell in the painting, The Problem We All Live With (published in Look magazine on January 14, 1964).
As soon as Bridges entered the school, white parents pulled their own children out; all the teachers except for one refused to teach while a black child was enrolled. Only one person agreed to teach Bridges and that was Barbara Henry, from Boston, Massachusetts, and for over a year Henry taught her alone, "as if she were teaching a whole class."
That first day, Bridges and her mother spent the entire day in the principal's office; the chaos of the school prevented their moving to the classroom until the second day. On the second day, however, a white student broke the boycott and entered the school when a 34-year-old Methodist minister, Lloyd Anderson Foreman, walked his five-year-old daughter Pam through the angry mob, saying, "I simply want the privilege of taking my child to school ..." A few days later, other white parents began bringing their children, and the protests began to subside.
Child psychiatrist Robert Coles volunteered to provide counseling to Bridges during her first year at Frantz. He met with her weekly in the Bridges home, later writing a children's book, The Story of Ruby Bridges, to acquaint other children with Bridges' story.
The Bridges family suffered for their decision to send her to William Frantz Elementary: her father lost his job as a gas station attendant; the grocery store the family shopped at would no longer let them shop there; her grandparents, who were sharecroppers in Mississippi, were turned off their land; and Abon and Lucille Bridges separated.
In September 1995, Bridges and Robert Coles were awarded honorary degrees from Connecticut College and appeared together in public for the first time to accept the awards.
Her childhood struggle at William Frantz Elementary School was portrayed in the 1998 made-for-TV movie Ruby Bridges. The young Bridges was portrayed by actress Chaz Monet, and the movie also featured Lela Rochon as Bridges' mother, Lucille "Lucy" Bridges; Michael Beach as Bridges' father, Abon Bridges; Penelope Ann Miller as Bridges' teacher, Mrs. Henry; and Kevin Pollak as Dr. Robert Coles.
After graduating from a desegregated high school, she worked as a travel agent for 15 years and later became a full-time parent. She is now chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which she formed in 1999 to promote "the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences". Describing the mission of the group, she says, "racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it."
Bridges' Through My Eyes won the Carter G. Woodson Book Award in 2000.
Bridges, now Ruby Bridges Hall, still lives in New Orleans with her husband, Malcolm Hall, and their four sons.
On January 8, 2001, Bridges was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Bill Clinton.
Like hundreds of thousands of others in the greater New Orleans area, Bridges lost her home (in Eastern New Orleans) to catastrophic flooding from the failure of the levee system during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Hurricane Katrina also greatly damaged William Frantz Elementary School, and Bridges played a significant role in fighting for the school to remain open.
The Alameda Unified School District in California named a new elementary school for Bridges in October 2006, and issued a proclamation in her honor.
In November 2007, the Children's Museum of Indianapolis unveiled a new permanent exhibit documenting her life, along with the lives of Anne Frank and Ryan White. The exhibit, called "The Power of Children: Making a Difference", cost $6 million to install and includes an authentic re-creation of Bridges' first grade classroom.
In 2010, Bridges had a 50th-year reunion at William Frantz Elementary with Pam Foreman Testroet, who had been, at the age of five, the first white child to break the boycott that ensued from Bridges' attendance at that school.
On July 15, 2011, Bridges met with President Barack Obama at the White House, and while viewing the Norman Rockwell painting of her on display he told her, "I think it's fair to say that if it hadn't been for you guys, I might not be here and we wouldn't be looking at this together".
On May 19, 2012, Bridges received an Honorary Degree from Tulane University at the annual graduation ceremony at the Superdome.
In 2014, a statue of Bridges was unveiled in the courtyard of William Frantz Elementary School.