Civil rights activist Ruby Bridges visits local school

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A photo of Ruby Bridges and CA-34 Congressman Jimmy Gomez shaking hands courtesy of Gomez's office.

Ruby Bridges is not a first-grader anymore. But the painting she inspired, Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” depicts how her 6-year-old self braved entering her school on her first day escorted by federal marshals amid protesters.

Bridges was the first Black student to attend William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960. Now she is 68 and spoke to Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, a high school in Echo Park, Feb. 16.

The principal of Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, Blanca Cruz, said she immediately received calls and text messages after the event.

“One of my math teachers reached out right away and said it was the best assembly he had attended in his entire career, and this is a teacher that is close to retirement,” Cruz said. “[The assembly] spoke to our current issues that we ourselves are facing on campus, and making sure that the unity is always there — making sure that students understand the importance of uplifting each other.”

A government and economics teacher at Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, Sean Erickson, said that Bridges brought the learning to life.

“When you have somebody face to face, and they’re not even very old, talking about what they went through, it really makes it more relatable and humanizes the history and the fact that it is not history,” Erickson said. “It is ongoing today.”

He said that students were surprised that Bridges was still alive. Barbara Henry, Bridges’ first-grade teacher is also still alive — showing that this history was not long ago. Henry taught Bridges one-on-one in an empty classroom. Bridges said in an NPR interview that her teacher showed her that she cared about her and made learning fun.

“[Them being alive] also means that a lot of those other students, parents and teachers who were protesting… are still alive,” Erickson said. “Making that connection with the students was pretty powerful.”

CA-34 Congressman Jimmy Gomez, who serves as a representative for areas such as Eagle Rock, Highland Park and parts of Echo Park, attended the event and shook Bridges’ hand. A social studies teacher at the school, Elliott Goodman, said that Gomez also spoke at the event. He said that Gomez supported some of the prior activities teachers had completed with students leading up to the assembly.

“[From Bridges’ visit] I think the biggest message was that racism has to end with this generation, and she referred to the big lie,” Goodman said. “The big lie that people believe is that people are unequal, and so we have to question anyone who is basing something on that big lie. And it really falls on this generation of teenagers to fight against that lie and work towards a less racist future — hopefully, a not racist future.”

Goodman said students participated in a gallery walk leading up to Bridges’ visit, where they took notes on related historical photos posted around the room. One of the photos was of armed guards escorting the Little Rock Nine into Little Rock Central High School.

“Because it’s really visually-based, and not so much language-based, our English language learners and students with special needs are able to participate as well,” Goodman said.

Bridges was a star at the assembly, according to Goodman.

“She can command a room of 1,200 people, and I bet she could do 12,000 people. She is an amazing public speaker; she tells her story in ways that are really accessible,” Goodman said.

He said the visit brought everyone together. According to Goodman, the students were engaged and listening.

“What students took away from the experience was that change still needs to happen,” Goodman said.

Contact Angela Guglielmino at aguglielmino@oxy.edu

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