Southaven woman gets insider's view to history

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

SOUTHAVEN – Millions of people will watch President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address tonight, but only a few hundred will see it in person.
Among them will be 86-year-old civil rights activist and Southaven resident Gertrude Bridgeforth, who will attend as the special guest of U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, D-Miss.
Southaven is part of Mississippi’s 1st Congressional District, which Childers represents.
Childers invited the retired insurance underwriter last week, giving her the ticket originally reserved for his wife, Tami.
It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for a woman who helped her father register blacks to vote and who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through the streets of Memphis.
It’s also a consolation prize for having traveled to Washington, D.C., for Obama’s 2009 inauguration only to have been turned away.
“I rode from here to Washington in a car and walked that whole mall on a walker,” Bridgeforth said from her Southaven home Tuesday. “I was almost inside the gate when they shut it and didn’t let anyone else in.”
Bridgeforth said she wasn’t angry; it was a day for celebration no matter where she experienced it. But she regrets not having been closer to the action.
Now she’ll be in the same room with the nation’s first black president as he delivers his first State of the Union address. Bridgeforth will be watching from the balcony of the U.S. House of Representatives chamber at the Capitol.
“It was so unfortunate that Mrs. Bridgeforth came all that way in January to see the president’s inauguration and couldn’t get into the ceremony,” Childers said. “My wife Tami and I wanted to set things right. Mrs. Bridgeforth has a long and distinguished history of serving her community, and I’m honored to have her as my guest.”
In addition to her work during the civil rights era, Bridgeforth has long been involved with the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and was named Volunteer of the Year by the Mississippi AARP in 2006.
And she’s not done working yet. Bridgeforth is passionate about curbing childhood obesity and will turn her Washington journey into a business trip. She’s taking several letters written by DeSoto County residents and public officials inviting First Lady Michelle Obama for a visit.
“Michelle has promoted health for children,” Bridgeforth explained. “And we’re the fattest state.”
The octogenarian smiled as she chatted inside her comfortable living room, her husband nearby in his wheelchair. He fought in the Army during World War II; she in Mississippi during the civil rights era.
Bridgeforth talked about those times, the difficulties she faced and the importance of seeing progress after all those years.
“This trip is a reward for a lifetime of struggle for human justice for everyone in Mississippi,” Bridgeforth said. “I’m so happy to be there. My daddy’s shouting about this, because he’d be there.”
Bridgeforth will leave this morning on a flight to Washington, where she’ll be greeted at the airport by Childers’ staff. Although she’s unsure of her entire itinerary, Bridgeforth said she knows she’ll go to the Capitol two hours before the speech.
The State of the Union address begins at 9 p.m. EST and at 8 p.m. in Mississippi. It comes at a rough time for Obama, whose ratings have declined as the economy stagnates and the Democratic Party has come under fire.
Bridgeforth said she’s still a fan.
“I think people expect him to take a magic wand and change it all of a sudden,” she said. “But it doesn’t happen like that. It takes teamwork – congressmen and senators – everyone working together. Not just him.”
Bridgeforth is scheduled to return home Thursday.

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.