This blog accompanies our November 2017 story on a University of Detroit Mercy civil rights movement travel course. Click here to read the full story.
In the third grade, I can remember watching the film Ruby Bridges, written by Toni Ann Johnson, based on the true story of the first black student to attend integrated schools in New Orleans in 1960. Never did I think that 15 years later as college student I’d meet Ruby Bridges while visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Initially, when I found out that Bridges was at the museum I thought of the young 6-year-old girl pictured in the film, dressed in an ivory white dress with a hair bow to match. It was fascinating to me that I would be meeting Bridges not only as my elder but as a woman who had dedicated her life to the fight for equal rights.
I had the pleasure of meeting Ruby Bridges as I traveled south on a civil rights movement travel course offered by the University of Detroit Mercy in May. The course took us throughout the south visiting famous landmarks of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. While at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, one of my classmates and I got wind that Ruby Bridges was at the museum and would be signing books. We rushed over to be first in line, excited to meet one of our heroes.
Ruby Bridges became a hero and inspiration to people throughout the world, when at the age of six she integrated William Frantz Public School at the hand of her mother, accompanied by U.S. federal marshals. As she entered, the school a large mob shouted racist remarks and obscenities at her and even threatened her life. In her book, Through My Eyes, Bridges writes that she remembers seeing a black doll in a coffin, which “frightened me more than anything else.” Millions of people across the country saw this scene happening on national television and rushed to Bridges’ aid, sending care packages and cards expressing their admiration for her strength and courage.
My encounter with Bridges was brief but magical. I told her it was an honor to meet her and thanked her for her service to the cause. In meeting her, I couldn’t help but assess my own strength, which led me to ask myself whether I would have been as courageous as she was at such a young age. The truth is, Bridges was strong, so I didn’t have to be, and her activism has paved the way for me and so many other children of color to come.
As an adult, she reflects on the famous 1964 Norman Rockwell painting of her younger self walking into Frantz school and says, “The girl in that painting at six years old knew absolutely nothing about racism. I was going to school that day.” By the end of that first year, Bridges says, she learned a valuable lesson: “None of us know anything about disliking each other, it is something that is passed on.” That lesson has become the motto behind the Ruby Bridges Foundation which focuses on education, while promoting the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation for all differences.
Today, de facto segregation is on the rise and schools are now segregated by social and economic class. For instance, in Through My Eyes, Bridges talks about the fact that Frantz school is now located in a poor neighborhood in the inner city, and most of the students there are African American. “As true of most inner-city schools,” states Bridges “there’s never enough funding to keep William Frantz up to current standards or even to offer the students the same opportunities they would receive in some of the suburban schools I’ve been fortunate to visit. The kids are being segregated all over again.” After meeting Ruby Bridges and taking part in the civil rights travel course I could not help but to think of contemporary times and how they relate to the past. Although, much has changed since the 1950s and ‘60s a lot has remained the same. Issues concerning discrimination and race still exist today but have taken on different forms, which is why the civil rights travel course is so important. It provides students with an opportunity to not only learn about to the past but to also understand why those things happen so that those same mistakes don’t repeat themselves.
Stevie Jones is a graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy. A story she wrote for the university’s alumni website about the school’s civil right movement course can be found, here.