Political Minutes: Ruby Bridges Comes to Campus

Wednesday night, The Veritas Forum chapter at Columbia University hosted an interview and discussion with Ruby Bridges who famously integrated William Frantz Elementary School in 1960, when she was just six years old. Bridges, now 57, was interviewed by former Dean and professor Michele Moody-Adams for one-half of the interview, followed by Gabrielle Apollon, a recent Columbia College and SIPA graduate now working for the United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti. The event focused on her personal and faith life, but also provided interesting thoughts on race relations from a participant in the civil rights era.

The interview, taking place in the Diana Event Oval, was held beneath a project of Norman Rockwell’s famous 1963 painting “The Problem We All Live With,” showing a young black girl going to school surrounded by U.S. Marshals. Following a student poem inspired by the picture and Bridges’ story, Bridges, now Ruby Bridges Hall, explained how she became the first young girl to integrate in the civil rights era South. Bridges responded candidly to Moody-Adams questions about her perception of the significance of her actions as a six year old, saying that she did not understand the significance until much later in her life. She then explained silence in regard to her past by both her family and the city of New Orleans during her adolescence, saying that she did not understand the significance until she was 17.

Large portions of the event focused on Bridges’ faith not only during her historic childhood, but also during her adult life. Moody-Adams and she spoke prominently of forgiveness both to the racist hecklers and death threats when she was young as well as more personal forgiveness to members of her own family. Bridges spoke of finding new direction in her life through prayer after she had lost her unfulfilling job as a travel agent. Her most touching and personal story was when she spoke of the pain from the murder of her eldest son and coincidentally (or fatedly) meeting the nurse who comforted him as he died in the hospital.

Bridges used incidences of pain from her own personal life to discuss race relations today and the inspiration for her current work speaking to students and rebuilding William Frantz school, which was damaged in Hurricane Katrina. She said that her time with Ms. Henry, the white teacher from Boston who taught Ruby alone during her first year at the school, taught her not to judge people based on appearances because Ms. Henry looked exactly like the hecklers outside. Saying that her eldest son “was murdered by someone who looked exactly like him,” Ms. Henry said that the real conflict in the world was between good and evil people, not races.

One claim on race relations that seemed the boldest was that “racism is so much worse now,” than in the 1960s, which she said before stating that her usual phrase for racism is that it is “extremely dangerous today.” However, she contrasted these racial divisions she sees in modern America with an image of a place where race truly did not seem to matter, the Intensive Care Unit, where patients’ relatives of different races would all sleep next to each other on chairs. She spoke briefly of her work trying to teach children about race as well as the history that “is not in history books,” including important parts of the civil rights movement.

At the end, Bridges discussed questions from the audience, which were submitted via flashcard and the Twitter #rubyveritas, ending the forum with a call for all present to save the world in which they lived.  The event, though focusing on many aspects of Bridges’ spiritual life, also provided interesting insight into race relations as they have developed – as well as the one historical figure’s motivation for social engagement.