Education Desk: Busing To 'Forge Friendships'
Forty years ago, during the summer of 1976, school officials in Illinois’ capital city were in federal court, arguing about how to desegregate Springfield schools. Roger Bridges was one of more than a hundred plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but he emerged as one of the architects of the desegregation plan ultimately chosen by Judge James Ackerman. The plan is still in use today.
As families get set to send their kids back to school, we asked Bridges to remind us why some of our youngest students will be taking the bus.
On his role in desegregating Springfield schools:
“I chaired the committee that wrote the plan that would divide the city into quadrants, and have all the students from a single quadrant attend schools together through the elementary years…. Everybody attended their local school as a kindergartner and then at some point in their elementary experience. But at another point, everybody at a certain grade level from that elementary district would be bussed to another school within the same quadrant. So it meant that if you lived in West Grand, and you made a friend from a black school, you would be going to school with that person for at least five years. We did that on purpose, to help children forge friendships. I guess maybe that was not cool with some people.”
On how he got appointed to the desegregation planning committee:
“I got on there by hook and by crook. The council was composed of 57 people, and each elementary school parent organization could select one representative…. I had my daughter tell the principal that her father would be interested in serving on the council. So I was notified when the next PTA or PTO was going to be, and I deliberately did not go so that people wouldn’t ask me what I thought. And nobody wants to serve on a committee like that, except I did, because I thought I could make a difference. And I think I did.... I misrepresented them, and I’m proud of it."
On how integration benefitted his (white) children:
“We live in a multicultural world. I believe strongly in equality of opportunity for all children. I have long been opposed to any form of segregation. And I just think you need to be proactive. You can’t just sit back and wait for something to happen. And your children are going to look at your example -- and I know that they did appreciate, in the long run, and they’re better men and women for it.”
On how his family felt at the time:
“My son was in 7th or 8th grade and was scheduled to go to Springfield High School the next year. And one of his friends, at the last day of school, said, ‘I will see you next year at Springfield High if your dad hasn’t screwed up the school system.’ “
On reactions to his desegregation plan:
“I spoke to a very hostile audience at Lanphier High School, to parents, and I was afraid to walk to my car. That’s putting it too strongly. I had some fears. I wondered if I would not be okay, if I would be attacked on the way.
"I can tell you I rode the bus to work every day, and I perceived that everybody was looking at me and that I was unpopular. I discovered that nobody knew who I was. So it did affect me that way. It made me paranoid for no good reason."
On why he signed on as a named plaintiff in the NAACP’s desegregation lawsuit:
“I wanted to be a part of something that was important to me and my children. I just wanted to lend whatever strength I could to the court case.”