Bridges, whose image as a child is immortalized in a Norman Rockwell painting, said people are generally surprised to find that she has grown up.
“I find most kids expect me to be six, most grown-ups expect me to be Rosa Parks. I fall somewhere in between,” said Bridges, who is 42.
In her introduction, Claudia A. Highbagh, an affiliated minister of Memorial Church, called Bridges “a true hero.”
Bridges said she was one of six students who passed a mandatory test to enter an all-white elementary school as a first-grader, following a court order to integrate New Orleans public schools in 1960.
“I proudly point out that all six kids were girls,” Bridges quipped.
Bridges was assigned to the William Franz Elementary School. The two other children who were assigned to the same school were withdrawn by their families before the school year began.
She described being escorted by four white federal marshals on the first day of school, to chants of “two, four, six, eight—we don’t want to integrate.”
Bridges said she became so used to the chant that she used to jump rope to it.
She said she remembers being impressed by the size of the school.
“If this is school, it must be college,” she said. “I really thought I was going to college.”
Bridges said she was surprised when she entered the classroom and found her teacher sitting alone surrounded by empty desks.
“I thought my mom brought me to school too early. She did—probably years too early,” Bridges said.
Bridges described the traumatic experience of receiving death threats and not being allowed to leave the classroom during the school day.
Bridges said her firsthand confrontation with racism as a child continues to shape her opinions about racism in America today. She said she hoped audience members, many of whom were young children, would learn from her story.
“We pass racism on to our children, Bridges said. “And it continues to grow.” Bridges spoke about her brother, who was killed in 1993 at the age of 20.
“My brother was shot 11 times by someone who looked exactly like him. We do not live in a world where we need to only trust people who look like us,” Bridges said.
Currently, Bridges travels around the country to lecture at schools about racism.
She coauthored a book with Agee Professor of Social Ethics Robert Coles and in 1999, published her own book, Through My Own Eyes.
Bridges said she uses her own experience to focus on teaching children.
After she spoke about her second-grade teacher, who was reluctant to teach a black girl, a second-grader in the audience commented that he too had a mean teacher.
“Do you have a question you want to ask me?” asked Bridges.
“Did third grade get any better?” the student responded.
Bridges smiled and reassured him, before closing with what she described as her motto—words that received a standing ovation.
“Racism is a grown-up disease—let’s stop using our kids to spread it,” she said.