On Wednesday night, the Veritas Forum hosted a forum with Ruby Bridges, along with two Columbia interviewers: Professor Michele Moody-Adams and Gabrielle Apollon, CC ’09, SIPA ’10. Ilya Wilson, CC ’12, introduced Bridges after performing an original spoken-word piece dealing with Bridges’ impact on her identity as a young black woman. Bwog’s procrastinating lecturehopper, Peter Sterne, reports.
The Event Oval in the Diana Center was packed with people, and almost 200 had to be turned away for lack of space, as Columbia and Barnard students scrambled to see civil rights icon Ruby Bridges speak to the Columbia/Barnard community. But if the audience expected a heartwarming tale of a 6-year girl triumphing over racism and violence by attending an all-white school, they quickly realized Bridges’ story was much more complex. Her talk was an extended meditation on the importance of faith and forgiveness, borne out of deeply personal and painful experiences in her life.
Bridges is world-famous for being the first black child to attend an all-white school—William Frantz Elementary—in New Orleans, Louisiana during the Civil Rights movement. The NAACP originally selected 140 children to integrate New Orleans schools, but only 6 of them (“all girls!” Bridges proudly recalled) were able to pass the admissions test for the school, which was designed to keep out black students. Once she began attending William Frantz, parents pulled their children out of the school and teachers refused to teach her. Federal marshals had to escort her to class as angry whites protested outside the school, insulting and threatening to kill her—a scene famously captured in this Norman Rockwell painting.
What’s remarkable about Bridges, though, is not that she attended the school, but that she forgave all the people who threatened to kill her. Professor Moody-Adams told Bwog she was “transfixed” by Bridges’ “capacity to forgive,” and much of the conversation between Bridges and her interviewers focused on the nature and importance of forgiveness. Far from heartwarming, her meditation on forgiveness was somber and serious.
As a child, Bridges admitted, she only forgave out of habit; it wasn’t until she was 30 years old and had to forgive a family member who had seriously hurt her that she realized the importance of forgiveness. Every time she saw this person, she became physically ill. Eventually, “sick of being sick,” she asked God for relief and felt drawn to forgive the person who wronged her, which freed her from the crippling physical and emotional effects of feeling seriously wronged.
Shocking the audience, she argued that “racism is so much worse today [compared to the 1960s]…it’s much more dangerous today.” By racism, she did not so much mean discrimination against racial minorities, but the idea (which she finds false and dangerous) that one is safer associating with members of ones’ own race. There are good people and bad people, she explained, and that cuts across racial lines. Modern racism, she feels, makes people trust bad people simply because they are members of the same race, which can lead to violence.
Sadly, her opinion is informed by painful personal experience. “I have 3 sons, but I have 4 in my heart,” she confessed to the audience. “My oldest was murdered in 2005…someone who looked just like him stood over him and shot him 11 times.” Making the story even more tragic, her eldest son was only murdered because he was investigating an earlier drive-by shooting of another of Bridges’ sons and some of her grandchildren.
The audience went dead silent, as Bridges explained that the 2005 murder of her son, her “best friend,” was the hardest thing she had ever faced, but only made her faith stronger. She refused to ask, “Why me?” or give up her faith as a result of the murder, having seen her husband lose his faith after suffering a brutal hit-and-run accident some years before. She insisted, “the more faith is tested, the stronger it gets.”
Bridges’ frank discussion of her faith did not go unremarked. “You were raised in that tradition,” Apollon remarked, “[but] we have people from lots of different traditions here, and some of what you’re saying might seem ‘out there’ to them.” Bridges replied that she did not begrudge anyone their views, but had personally felt the hand of God in her life, recounting a time when she was experienced vivid dreams in the months before her father’s unexpected death, and a time when she rushed to the emergency room only to meet the nurse who had cared for her son before he died.
The Veritas Forum, which often tries to promote discussion of faith and philosophy by hosting debates between religious and secular speakers, must have been pleased that Bridges spent most of her time discussing her faith and the nature of forgiveness, rather than retelling the story of the time she walked to school as a first-grader. The audience, though perhaps not uniformly comfortable with her avowed belief in God, also seemed to appreciate hearing about her deeply personal experiences and her unique take on the idea of forgiveness. Moody-Adams may have summed up the forum best when she told Bwog after the forum, “Forgiveness is emphasized by many religious traditions, but it’s also accessible to secular people.”