Civil rights legend Ruby Bridges highlights MLK Commission luncheon

Bridges was the first African American student to integrate a southern elementary school


MONDAY, Jan. 15 — Over 1,500 people went to the Lansing Center today to see Ruby Bridges,  who 64 years ago became the first Black child to integrate an all-white elementary school in the South.

“It’s just a little cold up here,” Bridges, a Louisiana native, said to laughter at the annual luncheon sponsored by the Martin Luther Jr. Day Commission of Mid-Michigan on MLK Day after she was introduced.  “But it’s such a warm welcome that makes up for that cold weather.”

Bridges answered questions put to her by state Sen. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, starting with “How would you describe Ruby Bridges for us?”

“One foot in the past, and one in the present. That’s an uncomfortable place to be sometimes,” Bridges replied.

“My life was really not mine. I have been frozen in time,” she added. “But that little girl is still there.”

The remainder of the conversation, which lasted for about 30 minutes, was dense and powerful. 

A daughter of sharecroppers, Bridges, 69, spoke about the experience she had as a 6-year-old, when she was escorted by federal armed guards into the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans on Nov. 14, 1960.

NAACP representatives had approached her parents and asked if they would send their daughter to the school, Bridges said she wasn’t afraid.

“I saw all those people screaming and yelling, waving and throwing things. I thought it was Mardi Gras. I’d stumbled into a parade,” Bridges said to more laughter.

“School was a luxury for them,” she said of her parents. “So, I think all they had to hear was, ‘If you allow your child to go, she will have an opportunity to have a better education and possibly go on to college.’ And my mother jumped at that. “So, there I was, on my way to school.”

“Has there ever been a moment, after that defining moment, that you had to make a courageous, yes?” Anthony asked.

Bridges explained that she is the mother of four sons. One day, her youngest came home from school with a flyer for a predominantly white summer camp, which she said was “across town, in a totally different environment, where people were not going to be looking like him.”

She told him: “You’re not going to know anybody over there.”

“He turned and he looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I’ll get to know them.' I thought to myself, ‘OK, Ruby Bridges, time to practice what you preach,’” she said.

He came back the next day, having not made any friends. She told him to keep his head up.

Before dropping him off the next day, Bridges mentioned to some camp counselors, “He thinks that he knows how to swim, but he’s actually been taking lessons.”

“The second day to pick him up, there’s three or four guys with him and he has all kinds of trinkets in his hands, hat on. They wave at me. I open the door and I asked him how the day went. He said, ‘Mom, you were right. I made friends. Five,’” Bridges explained.

She asked him how that happened.

“He said, ‘Well, I jumped in to swim, I was drowning, and five friends jumped in to save me,’” she said. “I immediately thought: It doesn’t even matter to him that he was drowning. What mattered to him was that he made five friends.”

After that, she touched on some of the larger issues.

“Racism makes us think that we can only trust people that look like us, and that kind of thinking is killing us all,” Bridges said. “Hatred is something that we cannot contain. It will grow.”

“I believe that what we are really facing today has absolutely nothing to do with the color of our skin and what we look like. Yes, racism is alive and well. We all know that. But there are so many other things out there to divide us. Racism is just one. I believe that what we’re facing today is much deeper than what we look like. It’s good and evil. And good and evil comes in all shades and colors,” Bridges said.

Before the luncheon, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Rep. Elisa Slotkin, D-Mich., East Lansing Mayor George Brookover and Lansing Mayor Andy Schor spoke.

“Today I want to talk about one value that Dr. King believed in and defined throughout his life: patriotism,” Whitmer said. “Dr. King was a proud American who saw the extraordinary potential of our nation, deeply believed in our national values and worked tirelessly to bring us closer to that.”

She quoted sections of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, explaining how America has spent centuries trying to rise to the values that its own Founding Fathers didn’t fully adhere to.

“Over nearly 250 years, we’ve gotten closer and closer. Everything from equitable school funding to greater empowered representation, to the CROWN Act here in Michigan — thank you, Sen. Anthony,” Whitmer said.

“Believing in this fight is what patriotism is all about. Dr. King used his patriotism as a tool to challenge us, to change us. He showed us how we can live up to those magnificent words. And when we fall short, pick ourselves up again and again,” she added. “That spirit could also be seen in a little girl with a radiant smile, named Ruby Bridges. She was literally a class of one, but she never missed a day. Imagine the courage that that took. Imagine how much she had to believe in her own future, to endure bigotry and violence. But she endured.”

Of both King and Bridges, she said, “They took action themselves to make it a reality. They’re patriots in the truest, very truest sense of the word.”

 Whitmer touched on some contemporary issues tied to racial equity and inclusion.

She cited recent work toward “expanding access to the vote, protecting workers rights to negotiate better pay and benefits, and providing free breakfast and lunch for every child so they can pursue happiness and success.”

Stabenow, a Lansing resident who is retiring from the U.S. Senate at the end of the year, said this would be her last time attending the event as an elected official, but that she would certainly be returning as a civilian.

She passed the microphone to Slotkin, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to succeed Stabenow.

Slotkin, whose district includes Lansing,  alluded to Stabenow’s remark, saying that “it hit her in the gut.” She thanked Stabenow for “constantly supporting this area for over 40 years in elected office" as an Ingham County commissioner and a member of both the state and U.S. House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000.

Slotkin said that when she met Bridges backstage,  she was “struck” by a couple of things.

“First, she is a young woman, not a woman that is from the history books only. She is live and vibrant, and that means it has been within a short living memory that her story was told,” Slotkin said.

She said she asked Bridges if she came from a big activist family.

“She said it couldn’t have been more opposite. At the end of the day, it wasn’t an activist move by her parents,” Slotkin said. “They didn’t wake up and train to be activists. They just wanted a better life for their children, which is the most universal thing in the entire world.”

In her closing remarks, Bridges outlined a path for continued progress.

“The good news is that all good needs is for us to open up and let it in. We are all blank minds and hearts. We just have to stop picking and choosing,” Bridges said.

Lansing, Martin Luther King Jr, Ruby Bridges, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Rep. Elisa Slotkin, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Sen. Sarah Anthony, Civil Rights, integration, segregation, Black, history, MLK Commission of Mid-Michigan, Lansing Center


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