Civil rights icon speaks during weeklong celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.

The Lenfest Center had to turn people away from the packed theater when Ruby Bridges spoke


Garrett Clinton, ’20, poses with Ruby Bridges after he read an introduction for her keynote address on Jan. 19. Photo by Hannah Denham.

Civil rights activist Ruby Bridges visited Lexington to deliver the keynote address in celebration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Bridges shared her story with a crowd of over 400 in Keller Theater on Jan. 19. At six years old, Bridges became one of the first black children to integrate the segregated New Orleans public school. She said when she arrived alongside her mother and U.S. Marshalls, she was met with an angry mob.

“What saved me was the innocence of a child,” Bridges said.

She said as a child, she only understood bits and pieces of what was happening to her. She knew that her parents told her she would have to take a test to go to a new school, which she remembers took “all day.” She remembered that she was one of six out of 150 black children who passed the test, and would be attending a new school.

What she did not know was that she would be the first black child to desegregate William Frantz Elementary School.

“Five hundred kids walked out of the school that first day,” Bridges said. “And it was because I was there.”

Still, Bridges said she did not understand the magnitude of the situation. In fact, she thought she was so smart after passing the test that she was skipping from first grade to college. She recalled seeing all of her neighbors standing outside of their homes as she drove away. When she saw the protestors surrounding the school, she initially thought she was being celebrated.

“I thought—I’m on my way to college and have run into a parade,” Bridges said. “It must be Mardi Gras!”

Later, Bridges would come to understand that the people outside of the school were not celebrating her. She said she was traumatized by a woman standing outside holding a black baby in a coffin.

“They kept pointing and shouting and screaming,” Bridges said.

Once she started at the elementary school, Bridges said she was kept in a classroom alone with one teacher, Barbara Henry, who she knew as Mrs. Henry. Bridges attributes some of the most important lessons in her life to Henry.

“She looked exactly like the people outside, but she did everything with me that you could imagine,” Bridges said. “She looks like them, but she’s not like them. She showed me her heart.”

Her message concluded with the tragic story of the death of her son to gun violence. Bridges said that racism is not the main problem in our society, but only a manifestation of a different issue.

“I believe what we see happening today has nothing to do with the color of our skin,” Bridges said. “I believe what we’re faced with today is good and evil.”

Associate Dean of Students Tammi Simpson, left, and Dean for Diversity, Inclusion and Student Engagement Tammy Futrell, right, pose with Ruby Bridges, middle, after her keynote address on Jan. 19. Photo by Hannah Denham.

Bridges said that her solution to the problem is love.

“Each and every one of us need to be doing something good,” Bridges said. “We shouldn’t honor [King] one day of the year. Let our actions honor him everyday of the year.”

Bridges is the subject of the Norman Rockwell painting, “The Problem We All Live With.”

In an interview with the Ring-tum Phi after her talk, Bridges said that for her, that painting changed her perspective.

“It made me realize that this was something that was really bigger than just myself,” Bridges said. “That it actually changed the face of education across the country.”

Bridges also told the Ring-tum Phi that she hopes her message resonates with students of color on a non-diverse campus like Washington and Lee.

“We cannot be picking and choosing what a person looks like,” Bridges said. “We need to be looking for the good in each other, and that in itself should bring us together.”

Bridges’s keynote address was the culmination of a weeklong celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Organized by the Office of Inclusion and Engagement, the celebration included a reflections dinner, a basketball tournament, a children’s birthday party and more.

Isabel Ryan, ‘21, and Joëlle Simeu, ‘20, participate in the CARE Rockbridge parade to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by David Gálvez.

On Jan. 20, students and community members participated in the fourth annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Parade, organized by Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE) Rockbridge. Parade participants carried signs bearing quotes from King and messages like “Love, not hate, makes America great.”

The frigid temperatures did not discourage organizers. Students, faculty and staff helped plan, facilitate and lead the parade. Ramonah Gibson, ‘20, sang a rendition of Michael Jackon’s “Man in the Mirror.” Joëlle Simeu, ‘20, David Gálvez, ‘22 and Fatou “Lemon” Lemon, ‘23, led call-and-response chants with parade participants. “Show me what community looks like; this is what community looks like” was a crowd favorite.

Lemon said that the support for the call-and-response chants gave her hope.

“It wasn’t even what I was saying that really mattered,” Lemon said. “It was the fact that [the crowd] was responding to those words.”

Ramonah Gibson, 20, marches in the CARE Rockbridge Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Parade. Photo by Maggie Hawley.