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Civil rights pioneer Ruby Bridges on activism in the modern era

In the 1960s, Ruby Bridges became the first African-American student to integrate into an entirely white public school system in New Orleans. She joins Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who followed in Bridges' footsteps 60 years ago and desegregated the University of Georgia along with Hamilton Holmes, to discuss racism and civil rights in the modern era.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, we turn to civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, who writes her own story in a new children's book, hoping adult ears will listen too in these fractured times.

    Telling her story is special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who followed in Bridge's footsteps when, 60 years ago this past weekend, Charlayne, along with Hamilton Holmes, desegregated the University of Georgia.

    This is part of our Race Matters Solutions series and our arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • President Barack Obama:

    If it hadn't been for you guys, I might not be here, and we wouldn't be looking at this together.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Ruby Bridges' name is synonymous with civil rights trailblazing, immortalized in this Norman Rockwell painting entitled "The Problem We All Live With."

    Bridges' historic moment came when she became the first Black child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in New Orleans at 6 years old. She had to be escorted by federal marshals as she walked past loud and unruly protesters and into the William Frantz Elementary School.

    Now, 60 years later, Bridges has written to and for children the same age of her younger self. She describes it as a call to action and contains historical photos of her pioneering time. Pioneering history is still being made and remembered, including a photo illustration that went viral after the election of vice president-elect Kamala Harris walking alongside the shadow of Ruby Bridges.

    Ruby Bridges, first, on behalf of my generation of civil rights pioneers, let me just say thank you for paving our way.

    Now, you have written other books, but this one is specifically aimed at readers who may be as young as you were when you first took those historic steps, when you were 6 years old into the elementary school there.

    Why did you do this book? And do you see similarities between then and now in some ways?

  • Ruby Bridges:

    Absolutely.

    You know, back in March, I was sitting in front of my television on lockdown because of the virus, like everybody else, and witnessed this young man's brutal death, Mr. Floyd, right in front of my face, like so many people did.

    And I was so disturbed by it and didn't know how to react or what to do. I felt like I'd been spending so many years talking to kids across the country. And I knew that they were watching this as well and probably wondering what was going on.

    The majority of my time, I talked to kids and explained to them that racism has no place in the minds and hearts of our kids across the country. And yet they were witnessing this. I was very moved by what I saw after his death. I saw young people take to the streets. And I felt like the torch had been passed and that now they had a cause to get behind.

    When Dr. King was assassinated, I felt like we should have picked that torch up and kept it moving. Even my own experience after going into the school, it was something that happened. No one talked about it in my community, in my neighborhood. It was swept under the rug, and life went on.

    I'm happy now to see that, all of a sudden, activism is cool again. And it should have been from 1960 until today. We didn't do a very good job of passing those lessons on to that generation.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Let's talk about teenagers and others in their 20s, the big demonstrations that are going on, multiracial, multigenerational, led by a lot of young people.

    But there are deep divisions. From politics, even to wearing masks, there are divisions. How do you explain that?

  • Ruby Bridges:

    We cannot be a hopeless people. We have to be hopeful.

    And we do have a lot of work to do. I mean, we all saw that. This last election showed us just how divided this country really is. After President Obama was elected, it seemed that racism really raised its ugly head again.

    I think having a Black man elected as president just riled that element up all over again. Probably, they felt like, oh, we cannot have this happen. And yet it did.

    And so all we needed is for someone to come along and add fuel to that fire. And I think that that's why we are so divided today.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    One of the things that you say in the book is you believe that racism is — let me read this — "a grownup disease."

    You're talking to the children now, the young people. You say: "We adults must stop using you, our kids, to spread it. It's we adults who passed racism on in so many ways."

    I hear people all the time saying, well, I want to do something about this, but I don't know what to do.

  • Ruby Bridges:

    We all know that none of our kids are born knowing anything about disliking the child sitting next to them.

    Our babies don't come into the world knowing anything about racism or disliking someone because of the color of their skin. It is learned behavior. And I believe that, if it can be taught, it can be taught not to — not to be that way.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    You mentioned your children. You had four Black boys, and your eldest was involved in an unsolved murder.

    What is your advice to mothers like yourself and also to those protesting the murders of Black men especially, but also Black women?

  • Ruby Bridges:

    That is a parent's worst nightmare. My son's murder was never solved. We do know that the people that actually took his life looked exactly like him.

    You know, there are so many parents out there, like myself, who have lost children my son's age or even babies by gun violence, which is very — very disheartening. That is an issue that we have to deal with as well.

    Whether it's the murders, like the murder that happened with my son, or murders like George Floyd, if you are passionate about that, then you need to do something about it.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    I'm very impressed with your passion and moved by it.

    And I imagine there might be a part of your book that is a favorite of yours. Is there any place that you could share with us?

  • Ruby Bridges:

    Yes, I have it right here. I will definitely do that.

    "When I think about how great this country could be, America, land of the free, home of the brave, I think about what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said about being great. Everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace. Really, it is that love and grace for one another that will heal this world."

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, Ruby Bridges, it's been such a pleasure to see you once again. You are a hero for all time, in the best of times, and it will always be your time.

    Thank you for joining us.

  • Ruby Bridges:

    Thank you. It's such a pleasure to see you again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you, Ruby Bridges, and thank you, Charlayne.

    Words to live by.

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