The timeless message of the “I Have A Dream” speech holds even more resonance on this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as the U.S. is confronted with the massive inequality that still exists in our country.
These inequities are laid bare by the police killings of Black people, the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color, and the differences in treatment of far-right extremists at the U.S. Capitol insurrection.
As a first-grader in 1960, civil rights activist Ruby Bridges was the first Black student to desegregate an elementary school in New Orleans. The U.S. is doomed to repeat history if the nation doesn’t learn from its past, she says.
When Bridges saw people take to the streets over the summer to protest the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, she says she felt “it was about time” for action. King utilized young people in his movement, she says, and today’s youth needed a cause to get behind.
“[The movement] looked exactly like it did in 1960 when I was, you know, going up those stairs to first grade, not really knowing what I was seeing at the time,” she says. “That in itself reminded me that the young people that I've been speaking to all these years probably feel the same way.”
Bridges’ story is forever seared into the American collective consciousness. A 1964 Norman Rockwell portrait shows her bravely walking into William Frantz Elementary School. And Bria Goeller's new depiction of that same portrait shows Vice President-elect Kamala Harris walking behind Bridges’ shadow, serving as a reminder of how far we've come.
At age 6, Bridges says she didn’t understand the idea of disliking someone based on skin color. Her story serves as a reminder that all “babies come into the world with a clean heart, a fresh start in life,” she says.
Adults need to make sure kids understand that racism has no place in the U.S. — because children shouldn’t have to go through what she did, she says.
“We as adults, we take racism and we pass it on to our kids,” she says. “And that is why we are seeing what we are seeing now 60 years later.”
In her children’s book, “This Is Your Time,” Bridges writes that people can’t sugarcoat the brutality and realities of racism, a grown-up disease passed on from adults to children. Bridges says she hopes the nation is close to getting to the root of this disease, though the attack on the Capitol may suggest otherwise.
Americans fighting for change must remain hopeful and united despite the divisions the country faces, she says.
“I think that we have to be diligent about teaching our kids right from wrong and loving one another. We have to also teach them that they have to take the torch and pass it on,” she says. “We cannot become lax at this."
This segment aired on January 18, 2021.