A few months before we enrolled in college, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges exercised her right to enroll in the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Her walk, accompanied by federal marshals, was immortalized in the Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With.” (The same painting formed a shadow in Bria Goeller’s photo illustration of Kamala Harris after Ms. Harris became the first Black woman nominated by a major party for vice president of the United States.)
Hamilton and I were also empowered by the history of our people and the struggles they confronted and overcame, dating to their first steps off the slave ships and onto these shores in 1526. It took a village to teach us this legacy — the teachers in our segregated schools and churches; our neighbors and families.
And it took yet another village to help us play our own part in this history. Our lawyers Constance Baker Motley, Donald L. Hollowell and Horace Ward were advocates for us, along with the newly minted young lawyer Vernon Jordan. Mr. Jordan helped lead us through the crowd of students yelling ugly racial epithets as we walked on campus to register for classes. And earlier, that village comprised the men of ACCA who encouraged us to apply to college in the first place.
It’s because of this village that a Republican judge, William A. Bootle, gave his historic ruling ordering UGA to accept us. It’s also because of this village that, 40 years after we set foot on campus, former Gov. S. Ernest Vandiver of Georgia apologized in person at the university for having vowed, “No, not one” — not one person the color of Hamilton and me would ever be allowed to enter its hallowed halls.
With this history in my head and heart, my path forward includes working to ensure that the doors of my alma mater are open even wider to Black students who, along with their classmates of all colors, will embrace this stated UGA goal: “to foster the understanding of and respect for cultural differences necessary for an enlightened and educated citizenry.”
We have many challenges ahead. There are times when, watching the news, I am brought to tears, not least when I see some of those I still think of as my fellow citizens, nevertheless exhibit awful behavior toward others who don’t look like them — the latest in the despicable behavior at the Capitol.
It is in these moments that I wonder: Why have they not learned from history? Is it because not all of our history is being taught in many schools around the country? And why is there no embrace of respecting differences of opinion?