OGDEN — Children will be the ones to move this country past racism, civil rights activist Ruby Bridges told a Weber State University audience Thursday night, and adults are responsible to facilitate that change of thought.
Bridges, who is known for integrating William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans when she was 6 years old, spoke as part of the university’s celebration of Black History Month. She said Black history is everyone’s shared history, and that it should be integrated into instruction throughout the year.
“We have one month in the year where we dedicated that month to Black history,” Bridges said. “I have often said, then who does the other 11 months belong to?”
Although the African American community has set aside time to celebrate Black history for nearly a century, the White House first recognized Black History Month in 1976 under President Gerald Ford. That’s a good start, according to Bridges, but 45 years later the country should be further along in acknowledging Black history.
Weber State communication associate professor Nicola Corbin, who was interviewing Bridges, asked her perspective on Maria Montessori Academy’s decision earlier this month to allow parents to opt out of Black History Month curriculum — a story first reported by the Standard-Examiner. The move attracted criticism from throughout the country, and the school later reversed its decision.
“I believe that it is our shared history, and if it is mandatory that you learn and teach history those other 11 months, why isn’t it mandatory that this particular history that’s taught and highlighted in February should be taught all year long?” Bridges said.
As an adult, much of Bridges’ activism through the Ruby Bridges Foundation has centered around educating children on inclusion as she combats racism. That task, she said, must also be taken up by parents and teachers.
“Kids come into the world with a clean heart,” Bridges said. “We have to do our part to bring our kids together with other kids so that they grow up knowing and respecting others’ differences.”
For teachers’ part, she hopes they will “go that extra mile to find the truth and teach the truth” by doing their own research and correcting textbooks when they notice misinformation.
Textbooks, Bridges said, is where miseducation about America’s history starts. Making an education system that is inclusive for everyone requires reevaluating the textbooks used in public schools, she argued.
“It’s going to have to start with our textbooks, if that’s what you’re using to teach, and it’s my understanding, unless you’re in a private school, you don’t really have the flexibility to teach whatever it is you want,” Bridges said. “If you’re leaving out certain things, it’s no longer the truth. You’re painting a different picture.”
A significant part of the full picture of America’s history are the policies that led up to Bridges being the first African American student to attend William Frantz Elementary.
Public schools in the U.S. could legally be segregated up until 1954 — the year Bridges was born — when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that the practice violated the 14th Amendment. Many of the state and local governments throughout the southern U.S. decried the decision, and it took years before it was enforced.
The NAACP, which is the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, urged Black citizens to take action and began helping parents enroll their children at schools throughout the South. In 1960, it recruited elementary school students to begin integrating Bridges’ local school system. Her parents agreed to participate.
“My parents were sharecroppers,” Bridges said. “They were born in a small town in Mississippi, and they did not have a formal education. Going to school was a luxury for them. What they heard was that this opportunity would allow your children possibly to go to college. I think that’s all my mom needed to hear. It was an opportunity she wanted for herself that she was never able to get.”
At the behest of the federal government, the Orleans Parish School Board administered an entrance exam to 150 African American students. Bridges was one of six who passed the test, designed to keep the Black students out of white schools.
The six children were split between two schools. The two other students who were meant to accompany Bridges, though, changed their minds.
Even though U.S. Marshals escorted her to school and she was met at the front doors by an angry crowd, Bridges said as a 6-year-old she didn’t initially realize why her attending William Frantz Elementary was significant.
Part way through a lonely school year, she met other children who attended the school for the first time. One of those students, she said, looked at her and told her, “My mom said not to play with you because you are a n-----.”
“I then realized at that moment that that’s what this is about,” Bridges said. “It’s about me and the color of my skin.”
Her parents’ decision to challenge the prejudice that allowed officials to keep Black children out of white schools laid the foundation for numerous civil rights changes that continue today. Former President Barack Obama once told Bridges that he doesn’t think he could have made it to the Oval Office if she hadn’t done what she did.
In a New York Times bestseller book she published in 2020, “This is Your Time,” Bridges passes the activism torch in a letter written to young people.
In response to police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, killing George Floyd last year, Bridges said, “I was really, really moved afterwards when I saw the young people united together and taking to the streets.”
“I know that (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) must have been so proud, because yes, every one of our kids are responsible to leave this place better than we found it,” she said.