Civil Rights Icon Ruby Bridges will Receive Steinbeck Award at SJSU

Ruby Bridges became a symbol of the civil rights movement when she
broke the color line at a segregated New Orleans school
AMERICAN GIRL: Ruby Bridges became a symbol of the civil rights movement when she broke the color line at a segregated New Orleans school.

For the first time in the 20-year history of the Steinbeck Award at San Jose State University, the accolade will be given to a person John Steinbeck actually wrote about. When civil rights icon Ruby Bridges receives this year's award in the Student Union on Feb. 24, the circle will complete itself.

In 1960, Steinbeck was almost done writing Travels With Charley and went out of his way to visit New Orleans, where a 6-year-old African American girl was about to break the color line by attending an all-white elementary school. U.S. Marshals escorted her. It was national news.

When Steinbeck arrived at the event, he went incognito to observe angry white women the press had called "the cheerleaders." The women were theatrically screaming violent racial obscenities just to get attention and applause from the other onlookers.

Steinbeck writes: "It had the same draw as a five-legged calf or a two-headed foetus at a sideshow." Since the women had obviously staged the affair, planning each vulgar outburst just for the media, he noted that their behavior "was the demented cruelty of egocentric children, and somehow this made their insensate beastliness much more heartbreaking."

The young African American girl, however, did not appear fazed. She ambled, even skipped, her way into the school, escorted by the marshals. Since no one else would sit in class with her, a special teacher flew in from Boston and taught her, all alone, for the rest of the year. Steinbeck did not name Ruby in the book, but she later grew up knowing that the girl depicted was indeed her.

The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies sits on the fifth floor of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Main Library and helps sponsor the award, officially called the "In the Souls of the People" John Steinbeck Award, referencing a phrase from The Grapes of Wrath.

The award is given to any artist, activist or thinker whose work embodies the spirit of Steinbeck's social engagement. Previous winners include a substantial list of musicians, writers and raconteurs, with a rousing series of events to its credit over the last 20 years. In 1996, for example, the first Steinbeck Award was given to Bruce Springsteen, who was then touring behind his folk album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, so the timing was perfect. Thanks to Ted Cady of the SJSU Event Center, Springsteen showed up to play a special sold-out acoustic gig and receive the award. Consequently, Springsteen also came around in 2004 to present Sean Penn with the Steinbeck Award, which unfolded that year in San Francisco. Other musicians previously awarded include Joan Baez, Jackson Browne and John Mellencamp, but it doesn't stop there. Folks like Studs Terkel and Rachel Maddow have also graciously taken time out of their schedules to stop by San Jose and receive accolades. Likewise, filmmakers Ken Burns and Michael Moore both recently received the award.

"Both of them spoke with the film students before they got their awards," the center's director, Nick Taylor says. "And that was really useful for everybody in the film program. Michael Moore was actually wearing his San Jose State hat that we gave him on talk shows for the next month."

However, there is a something unique about the center's decision to honor Bridges with a Steinbeck Award, according to Taylor. She isn't just an example of a hero Steinbeck might have written about. He did write about her.

"There have been a few people awarded that have a connection to Steinbeck, personally," Taylor says. "But what's cool with Ruby Bridges is that she's the first person who actually appeared in Steinbeck's writing."

For Taylor, the passage about the young Bridges skipping carefree through the gates of segregation was the highlight of Travels With Charley, one of the acclaimed author's final books.

"For me, that's the heart of that book," Taylor says. "Everybody finds a different 'heart' of Travels With Charley, but that's the theme that always sticks with me. I think it was really meaningful to Steinbeck as well. He was almost done with his trip, but he went out of his way to go there."

An Evening with Ruby Bridges

Feb 24, 7:30pm, $20

SJSU Student Union

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