‘Sometimes, to know where we are, we have to know where we’ve been,” said the Rev. Jason Shelton by way of introducing Step by Step: The Ruby Bridges Suite. On Thursday, June 22, during the 2017 UUA General Assembly, composer, pianist, and creator Darrell Grant led a performance of the suite before an audience of approximately 900 Unitarian Universalists and others.
In 2011, Grant talked with a friend whose daughter was reading about Ruby Bridges. The friend—and soon, Grant—wondered what it would mean to set Bridges’s story to music. Over the next year Grant wrote the music and lyrics. The version UUs saw at GA—with a six-person all-star jazz ensemble; narrator Tony Jackson, Portland-based Marilyn Keller reciting and singing Bridges’s words; and a choir combining singers from First UU Church of Nashville, Tennessee, and All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C.—was more intricate than the version that premiered in February 2012.
Bridges, at age 6, braved hateful mobs of white adults to become the first black child at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960. Before GA, Grant, based in Portland, Oregon, had never been to New Orleans. “I’m going to New Orleans to pay homage to the courage of a 6-year-old girl who had the nerve to pray for those who hated her,” Grant said. Grant, with the help of UUA staff member Janice Marie Johnson, got Bridges’s (now Bridges Hall) blessing for the suite.
Grant said response to the suite from UUs has been “overwhelming,” and credited the Rev. William G. Sinkford, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, as being especially supportive.
The suite ends with a photo of the adult Bridges Hall and President Barack Obama in the White House. “I thought this was a victory lap,” Grant said. Shelton added, “It’s supposed to remind you of how far we’ve come, and yet . . . these headlines could be right out of today’s paper.”
Grant said, “Don’t forget that Black Lives Matter and Obama did happen. . . . Yes, we are in the middle of a big struggle now, but as DuBois said, ‘we have not lost all the ground that we have gained.’ Don’t lose the heroism part—she was 6 years old.”