‘Surely we are better than this’: Famed civil rights activist Ruby Bridges speaks out on book bans

‘Surely we are better than this’: Famed civil rights activist Ruby Bridges speaks out on book bans

Famed civil rights activist and author Ruby Bridges testified before Congress in a hearing Thursday titled “Free Speech Under Attack: Book Bans and Academic Censorship.”

The panel included Bridges along with three high school students, a parent, a teacher, a librarian, and vice president of academic affairs at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Dr. Jonathan W. Pidluzny.

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Last year, a Tennessee group called Moms for Liberty turned their book-banning ire to Bridges’ book, Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story, focusing particularly on the photos that showed the hordes of outraged white parents protesting Bridges’ integration into the school, the Orlando Sun-Sentinel reported.

Bridges testified that when she first learned about the banning of her books, her instinct was to avoid responding altogether.

“However, as these bans have gained even more momentum,” she testified, “I feel it is now more important to speak up. … My books are written to bring people together. Why would they be banned? But the real question is, why are we banning any books at all? Surely we are better than this. We are the United States of America with freedom of speech.” 

Bridges talked about her own books (she has written five), saying that she has “purposely highlighted and lifted up those human beings as Americans who were seeking the best version of our country.” She specifically mentioned Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who helped to win the landmark case “that set me on this journey.”

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Bridges is best known as the first Black student to integrate an all-white elementary school in Louisiana in 1960. She was famously escorted daily by four federal marshals and sat alone in a classroom all year with Barbara Henry, notably the only teacher willing to accept her.

“When I share my experiences, my story in these books, I share our shared history—good, bad, and ugly,” she says.

Bridges said when she was growing up, there was no Black History Month, and textbooks left out the stories of Black Americans. She says she didn’t learn the full context of her own history until she was 17 years old—when a reporter showed up at her home with the Norman Rockwell painting depicting her famous walk into the school.

“Until that moment, I thought my experience in 1960 was contained to my own neighborhood, in my own community, or on my own street. I questioned if it really even mattered at all,” she said.

But it was seeing the painting helped Bridges realize how monumental her integration into the school was. She emphasized to the fact that the knowledge didn’t come from a textbook.

“The truth is rarely do children of color see themselves in these textbooks we are forced to use. I write because I want them to understand the contributions their ancestors have made to our great country—whether that contribution was made as slaves or volunteers. My books are written to inspire a generation and to continue to build this great country, because indeed there is much work to be done.”

Bridges ended by saying that if there’s going to be a conversation about banning books, then “Let’s have it.” But she adds that it must “include all books. … If we are to ban books for being too truthful, then surely we must ban those books that distort or omit the truth.”

Below are Bridges’ full remarks:

“The real question is, why are we banning books at all? Surely, we are better than this. We are the United States of America.” —Ruby Bridges speaking at today’s hearing on #bannedbooks and academic censorhip pic.twitter.com/TvoxiTb4bR

— Oversight Committee (@OversightDems) April 7, 2022

Rep. Jamie Raskin, chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, held the hearing to investigate efforts across the nation by parents, school boards, and lawmakers to ban books in public libraries and schools.

“The First Amendment, I used to tell my constitutional law students, is like Abe Lincoln’s golden apple of liberty. Everybody just wants to take one bite out of it,” Raskin said in his opening remarks. “Someone wants to censor Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn because it uses the n-word and someone else wants to censor Ibram Kendi’s Antiracist Baby because they think it means babies can be racists. Everybody wants to take a bite out of the apple, and if we allow all those bites, there will simply be no apple left,” Raskin said.

According to the American Library Association (ALA), in 2021 there were 729 challenges for the banning or removal of nearly 1,600 books in the country’s libraries and schools, “with most books written by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ persons.”

ALA President Patricia “Patty” Wong said it was “the highest number of attempted book bans since we began compiling these lists 20 years ago.”

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