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Through her eyes: Civil rights icon Ruby Bridges speaks before 2,000 at Smith College, thanks to 10-year-old’s invite

  • Civil rights activist Ruby Bridges autographs and writes a note for a child in a copy of "Ruby Bridges Goes to School" Feb. 2, 2018 during a book signing following Bridges' talk at Smith College's John M. Greene Hall in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, left, interacts with Dana Warren, 10, and her brother Billy Warren, 8, both of Westhampton, Friday during a book signing following Bridges’ talk at Smith College’s John M. Greene Hall in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, left, talks with Alisha Jean-Denis of Northampton while her children Jayla Webber, 11, left, and Hayden Jean-Denis, 4, stand by Feb. 2, 2018 during a book signing following Bridges' talk at Smith College's John M. Greene Hall in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, left, prepares for a photo with Jayla Webber, 11, and her brother Hayden Jean-Denis, 4, both of Northampton, Feb. 2, 2018 during a book signing following Bridges' talk at Smith College's John M. Greene Hall in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, left, poses for a photograph with Lili Lieberman-Bachman, 19, and Maya Lieberman-Bachman, 14, both of Huntington, Feb. 2, 2018 during a book signing following Bridges' talk at Smith College's John M. Greene Hall in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Amy Bookbinder of Northampton displays a photograph of civil rights activist Ruby Bridges that she has had in her house for the last 40 years Feb. 2, 2018 during a book signing following Bridges' talk at Smith College's John M. Greene Hall in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, left, meets Julius King, 7, of Granby, Feb. 2, 2018 during a book signing following Bridges' talk at Smith College's John M. Greene Hall in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



Staff Writer
Saturday, February 03, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — The crowd at Smith College Friday night had a 10-year-old to thank for a visit from civil rights icon Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 became the first black student to attend an all-white public school in the South.

Responding to a request from Dana Warren, a Westhampton Elementary School student, the 63-year-old activist and author visited the school and spoke at Smith.

“Racism is a form of hate, and that’s hard to contain,” Bridges said. “It festers, and it grows and it spreads, and if you think that it won’t affect you, it will. It will and it has. And that’s why we are where we are today.”

More than 2,000 women, men and children filled the John M. Green Hall to hear Bridges tell her story and share thoughts on the state of the world today.

“She has a really good lesson to teach that it doesn’t matter what exactly your background is or the color of your skin,” Warren said. “It’s about your perspective.”

In the fall of 1960, Bridges drew national attention when she braved protests to attend the all-white Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Every day for six months, four U.S. marshals escorted the 6-year-old two blocks to and from the school, where angry mobs of white parents waited outside screaming and threatening her.

“Today I have to set the record straight,” Bridges said. “I didn’t feel brave or courageous; I had no idea what was happening.”

In school, Bridges was isolated from the few students left whose parents did not withdraw them in outrage. Eating lunch alone everyday at her desk, she longed to play with the other students she sometimes heard but never saw. Instead, she spent all day with her sole teacher, Barbara Henry, whom she learned to love.

“I had never seen a white teacher before and I didn’t know what to expect from her,” Bridges said. “She looked just like the people outside, screaming and yelling.”

Finally, when Bridges was allowed to spend time with her classmates, one told her pointedly that his mother said he could not play with her because she was black.

“That is the day I found out what was happening,” Bridges said. “It’s not Mardi Gras. It’s not college. It was all about the color of my skin.”

She said she was never angry with the boy, however, and instead thinks about him when she contemplates the perpetuating nature of racism.

“We take racism and we pass it on to our young people,” Bridges said. “When we do that we are actually robbing and stealing our children of their innocence. That’s what we’re doing because they don’t come into the world like that.”

Bridges thanked Warren for her eagerness to learn from her story, as did Smith College president Kathleen McCartney.

“In a moment in this nation’s history when access to education is often conditional, complicated by race and citizenship, and when human dignity is under assault, our speaker brings an urgent message of courage and determination,” McCartney said during her introduction.

Good and evil

Central to Bridges’s talk were themes of innocence and understanding. She believes the nation is being divided, not along racial lines, but by forces of good and evil. The room hushed as she told the story of her eldest son’s murder, left unsolved in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“Evil goes into our universities, our movie theaters, nightclubs, even into our churches,” Bridges said. “And when you look in the faces of that evil that they show us, evil looks just like you and I.”

Warren first learned about the activist after reading a book by Bridges’s former child psychologist, Robert Coles: “The Story of Ruby Bridges.” She was inspired to share Bridges’s story with her classmates and the community.

“Ruby’s story is unique,” Warren said. “She changed the country as a whole and she helped the civil rights movement. She was part of it. Some people didn’t know about her when I told them.”

With the help of her mother, a Smith College graduate, Warren wrote a letter to Bridges asking if she would visit their small school. When the parent teacher organization couldn’t come up with the money, she asked whether Smith College would host the speaker. Months passed before Warren received a call in October from Bridges herself, confirming her visit.

“When I found out she had written that letter, I immediately called her,” Bridges said.

Earlier this week, Warren got to have dinner with Bridges and left Friday’s talk with a poster of the event signed by Bridges and McCartney.

A standing ovation followed Bridges’s talk, and an eager line of attendees waited to ask questions.

Smith College first-year student Yacine Fall, 18, asked how she felt about people of color having space to themselves, in the form of exclusive community groups or residences. Bridges pushed back against the sentiment, but sympathized with the discomfort being a person of color in a predominantly white community.

“Do you feel like having your own space makes things better?” Bridges asked. “I think it’s high time we stop separating ourselves. I understand your pain, and it feels like the same pain I felt when that little boy said I can’t play with you.”

Bridges’s memoir “Through My Eyes” chronicles her experience at the school and what she learned about racism growing up poor in New Orleans. After taking questions, she signed copies of the book and posed for pictures with fans.

Amy Bookbinder, 70, of Leeds brought a photo of Bridges that had been hanging on her wall for decades to be signed.

“I watched it all live on TV that day when she went to school,” Bookbinder said. “It’s good for people to hear the stories of allies.”

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan attended the talk, commended Warren for her initiative and noted the many children in attendance.

“It was wonderful seeing the young people from the elementary schools, high schools and colleges,” Sullivan said. “She really gave a message of it’s up to you to make change, the next generation.”

“I learned about her in school,” said Mia Periche-Salvage, 10, of Holyoke. “Ever since I heard about her I guess I’ve always wanted to meet her. She was pretty inspiring.”

Bridges was the inspiration for Norman Rockwell’s 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With” depicting a young black girl walking between four U.S. marshals, past racial slurs scrawled on the walls on her way to school.

Present in the audience Friday night was Wray Gunn, uncle of the young girl, Lynda Gunn, who served as Rockwell’s model for the painting. He and his wife recently bought a church through the Clinton Church Restoration project, and plan to devote the site to African-American culture.

“We are going to refurbish it, renovate it and get it started for community activities and to develop the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois in Great Barrington and support African-American heritage,” Gunn said.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.