In 1960, Ruby Nell Bridges, escorted by U.S. Marshals, strode past an angry gauntlet of white folks and integrated the New Orleans public school system.
Fifty-seven years later, Bridges displayed the same calm demeanor captured by famed artist Norman Rockwell during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Phoenix Awards Dinner on Saturday, when she challenged more than 5,000 people in attendance to stand up to racism for the children of this generation.
“For me, my work is all about kids,” said Bridges, who was one of a number of leaders interviewed about their individual strategy following the dinner, which wrapped the 47th Annual Legislative Conference. “It really is about bringing kids together because we need to understand that none of our babies come into disliking someone because of the color of their skin. I always say that it is the adults who are keeping racism alive. If we are going to get past our racial differences, it is going to come from our kids.”
Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee (D-Texas), said the conference was a critical event this year because “we need the tools to get back on the battlefield.”
“We need to be giving our constituents the tools all over the country to work on the school boards, to work in the counties and the states to make economic changes, criminal justice change,” Lee said. “We know what happened in 2016, we know President Obama did in his eight years, now it is up to us.”
Lee, board chair of the CBCF, has been involved in hurricane relief efforts in Houston. She said after working with her constituents in a flood-ravaged area, the CBC’s annual prayer breakfast Saturday morning was “a refuge for people who needed to find joy and affirmation that there is goodness.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said the challenge for CBC members going forward is to avoid distractions.
“What [Trump] has been able to do is distract us away from issues like making sure our children have good education, making sure that they have proper health care,” Cummings said, “We can’t be distracted.”
Echoing Cummings’ sentiments was Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.)
“We need to be focused on jobs, health care, education but we keep talking about Charlottesville,” Scott said
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss) said Trump “has given us new energy and a clear view on what we are facing. This whole thing is about hate but in this country you give people the facts they can make up their minds and it will be in the right direction.”
Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation, said, “Everybody at the CBC was thinking about strategy. What can we do for ourselves. We have a different president right now. We must have the ability to do for ourselves.”
As Georgetown University professor and author Michael Eric Dyson left the convention center, he said, “The critical thing for us is to recognize our work and our value in the middle of the most hostile presidencies in the history of this country. He is a racial arsonist who is against the principles of American democracy and we must be the firemen of justice.”