I never got the chance to meet Linda Brown; there were several times we were supposed to meet or be on the same stage together, but life gets in the way and it never happened.
I was the first black child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana in 1960. When I walked up those steps I was six years old, I of Linda Brown. When I sat in an empty classroom because no other families were willing to send their children to school with a black child, I didn’t know her name. When I looked out the window at recess, because it was too dangerous for me to play outside; when I sat at my desk at lunch because there was concern someone might try to poison me; when armed guards stood at the door to protect me—I didn’t know what Linda Brown and her father, Oliver Brown, had done.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I began to learn her story. I was searching for answers about my own experience, and it led me back to her. Like me, Linda didn’t understand what was keeping her from going to the same school as everyone else in her mixed-race neighborhood. She didn’t know why she was the one who had to attend a different school all the way across town. I’ve heard it was her mother who told her it was because her face was black and that her daddy was going to try to fix the problem.
We as African Americans knew that if we wanted to see change, we had to step up to the plate and make that change ourselves.
“Activism” today is a buzzy term. I didn’t feel like an activist growing up; I don’t know if Linda’s parents would have called themselves activists. I imagine they were like my parents, two sharecroppers who just wanted opportunities for me that they did not have. They didn’t sit me down and try to explain they were going to do something radical—neither of them had a formal education and that was something they wanted for their kids. They saw an opportunity to send their daughter to school, and they took it.
We as African Americans knew that if we wanted to see change, we had to step up to the plate and make that change ourselves. Not everyone comes to that realization in their lives, but thank God Linda Brown’s father felt that way. He set out to fix the problem. And together they changed the face of education in this country. It was a step that paved the way not just for me, but for all kids today. I remember meeting President Obama, and standing together in front of that Norman Rockwell painting of me going into school, and him saying, “If it hadn’t been for you and others like you, the two of us wouldn’t be standing here in this place today.”
Linda Brown passed that baton on to me. That baton is now being passed on to young people today. Like in the days of Civil Rights, students are again taking to the streets and marching. They are fighting for their lives, to be safe, to not die while they are in school. We adults have been sitting back and talking, hoping that something will change—and it hasn’t. These young people have decided they, too, can make a difference. They are standing up to make change. That’s exactly what Linda stood for. That’s her legacy.
The Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down in 1954, almost 65 years ago. Our schools are still not equal. I’ve seen schools in Detroit where the windows are broken, where there’s no heat and children are sitting with their coats on in class in the middle of a snowstorm. I’ve also seen schools in California with Olympic-size swimming pools and cafeterias like 5-star restaurants. Why is that? So many people who walked the walk, rode the busses, who were willing to risk their lives, are slowly passing away. Each time we lose one of those foot soldiers, it rings loud and clear that we haven’t made more progress. But Linda Brown paved the way for me to walk up those stairs. She paved the way for all of us to stand up and keep fighting. Once you go through an experience like we did, it either makes you stronger or it will devour you. The Parkland students and so many students across the country today have been able to handle something so difficult and turn it around for good. What we see on display today is the power of children, and we should be proud, because our future doesn’t seem as bleak as it did.
Civil Rights activist Ruby Bridges Hall was the first African-American child to desegregate a school in the South, and was recently recognized with the Fannie Lou Hamer award from the Civil Rights Museum in Mississippi. Through her work at the Ruby Bridges Foundation, she speaks to children about how they can come together, how they are powerful—and how adults often underestimate them.