The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (1964).

Ruby Bridges on her historical walk to William Frantz Elementary School (1960).

President Barack Obama, Ruby Bridges, and representatives of the Norman Rockwell Museum view Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With, hanging in a West Wing hallway near the Oval Office, July 15, 2011. Ruby Bridges is the girl in the painting. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“It confirmed what I had been thinking all along–that this was very important and you did this, and it should be talked about… At that point in time that’s what the country was going through, and here was a man who had been doing lots of work–painting family images–and all of the sudden decided this is what I am going to do… it’s wrong and I’m going to say that it’s wrong.”  -Ruby Bridges (2011)

Within the years of 1950 and 1951, five groups of infuriated parents from five different states filed lawsuits that targeted the misrepresentation of the 14th Amendment (equal protection clause) of the US Constitution (Order of Argument in the Case, Brown v. Board of Education). As the parents awaited the rulings that would determine the fate of their children’s education, they were finally faced with the confirmation that the segregation of schools would stay (Greenspan). Moreover, this bigoted, fundamental idea may be coupled with the undertone of the federal officials of the country wanting to teach the upcoming citizens and younger children receiving schooling to continue to be color blind and ignorant.

After these decisions were finalized and this form of a standstill presented itself, twelve parents, on behalf of 13 children, decided to file an evolutionary, class action lawsuit against the Board of Education of the city of Topeka, Kansas. This group of plaintiffs had decided to endure and face the backlash head on, not only for their children, but for the greater good of the country (Greenspan). Included in this group was Oliver Brown, or the man whose name would later strategically take precedence in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. Brown’s defense would later be founded on the fact that his daughter, Linda Brown, had to walk a mile to an all-black school, versus the six blocks to an all-white school at grade level three–all attributed to her denied admission (Documents Related to Brown v. Board of Education). Brown’s decision to act on behalf of his daughter, the country, and his moral uprightness and integrity would eventually break ground for the evolution of accepting diversity.

The case of Brown v. Board of Education initially started in the year of 1951; however, the case would not be finished until 1954 due to various reasons. Although it took a matter of years for the case to come to a close, as a result of civil rights protests and many other controversial events that will forever hold historical importance, the death of Chief Justice Fred Vinson was one of the most influential occurrences at the time. After Vinson’s death, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was able to appoint an iconic, new chief justice, Earl Warren (History – Brown v. Board of Education Re-enactment).

On May 14, 1954, it was Chief Justice Warren who presented the profound opinion and statement of, “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal…” (History – Brown v. Board of Education Re-enactment). It was the planting of this idea and Warren’s leadership that had lead to the upbringing and unanimous decision of the Justices, which stated that segregated schools were and are inherently unequal and that Plessy v. Ferguson also violated the equal protection clause. Despite this decision not being able to make an immediate effect on society, as a product of initial refusal and acceptance, it was able to later pave the way for the interracial and accepting America that we live in today. In addition to this positive outcome, the court’s ruling had also lead to the historical walk of Ruby Bridges, six years later.

Six year old Ruby Bridges had been granted the opportunity, by a 1960 federal court order that integrated all schools in Louisiana, to be the first African American student at an all-white school in New Orleans. Although Bridges had volunteered to be one of the firsts to desegregate the schools along with many other families, only she and five other students had passed a difficult test that lead to their admittance by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Between the six of the students, three were assigned to two different schools; however, everyone had dropped out, leaving young Bridges to attend alone, as explained by Bridges in an interview with Tampa Bay Times art critic, Lennie Bennett. On the morning of November 14, Bridges acted on the offer of NAACP and was escorted by four US Marshals to William Frantz Elementary School, as depicted in the painting and later featured in LOOK Magazine, The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell. This walk and painting together will indefinitely be something that “remains an important national symbol of the struggle for racial equality” and will sustain the same level of significance, as expressed by White House Curator William Allman.

Within the painting, Rockwell makes many noteworthy artistic decisions that purposely shed light and bring attention to Bridges. Not only does he emphasize fact that she is a younger child who is facing backlash and hated for solely trying to receive a better education, but in doing so, he also shines a bright spotlight on the high concentration of racism still running through the veins of America–six years post-ruling of Brown v. Board of Education. Moreso, Rockwell uses his artwork to display the message of, “This is no embrace of a post-racial narrative. Rather, it is a call to examine anew the relationship between the educational policies that create or exacerbate the racial and other disadvantages experienced by minority children. Under the constitutional cover of Brown, we must adopt education policies that promise to foster full participation of our children in an exceedingly diverse, technological, and global America” (James), while also introducing his own personal statement and take on the matter, “Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”

One of Rockwell’s bold, but often overlooked statements is the framing of the artwork in the eyes of the bystanders or white protesters, and possibly in the perspective of the younger child. One may infer this due to the painting being at the level or eye-to-eye with this six year old child, while also cutting out the upper portions of the taller men. This alone speaks volumes because it sets the tone of the scene by showing that children were alongside their mothers or others, protesting for the sake of a different race trying to integrate an elementary school; a position that instills racist core beliefs within these younger beings. Although Rockwell presents both perspectives: the child in the crowd and Bridges, for the effect of empathy, he still consistently finds ways to input the apparent and necessary undertones of the bigger fight: civil and equal rights.

In addition to this strategic perspective, Rockwell reigns in more focus on Bridges through his overall color choices. His decision to change Bridges’ actual attire to a white dress, while having her clasp a ruler and notebook tightly in her hands is done in order to portray her as innocent, pure, and eager to start school. This is illustrated through the use of the white archetype, her general appearance, and the image of her pacing ahead of the marshal’s insync stride. After the viewer finds themselves fixated on Bridges, their eyes begin to wander to the figures closest to her on the left hand side, two out of four US Marshals. However, the viewer does not have the option to derail their focus from the painting’s main message and Bridges herself because of Rockwell’s ingenious portrayal of the marshals. He intentionally chooses to display all four marshals without a face and in tones of grey, so that they aren’t the main focal point. The only things that are in fact placed as a way to stand out are the yellow armbands on all four marshals and the court order within the pocket of the man in the front. Next to these key elements are deliberately placed words in the background: “KKK” on the left side of the portrait, beside the marshals, and “nigger” on the right side, alongside the other set of marshals. Accompanied by the word “nigger” is a tomato that has already come in contact with the wall, after missing the target (Bridges). Once the viewer’s eyes have moved in a spiral-like pattern from Bridges to the US Marshals to the left, to the word “KKK” plastered on the wall, back to the US Marshals on the opposing side, and back to another hateful word on the wall, “nigger,” next to the already thrown tomato, the viewer may find themselves in a preliminary state. The immediate emotion that one may feel is shock; however, once moved past this feeling and after revisiting the artwork to clarify previous thoughts and questions, the message itself starts to unveil itself further. The initial, overwhelming feeling of shock stems from finally being fully confronted of the prevalent issue of racism in America; unlike the problem being overlooked or not directly spoken out on before, Rockwell finally forces you to zero in.

After moving past the important and apparent surface level messages, other typically overlooked symbols start to emerge. One of these key symbols being and stemming from the offered sense of exigency by this form of rhetorical discourse is: the unjust oppression of African Americans and the confinement extended by the government and institutions. This may be further seen through the US Marshals’ appearance–this including their skin color, insync stride, uniformity, and the sense of power that they exude. Within the portrait, it is quite apparent that the marshals are white, which represents the irony of the situation itself. These white government officials who offer safety to this young, African American girl are also confining her literally (keeping her boxed in by their insync stride) and figuratively (symbolic of the backhand raised to African Americans by the government and institutions). Both of these sources of confinement having guise when it comes to depicting that they stand, support, and offer safety to African Americans (Bridges), but allow leeway and passivity for hatred in actuality (the tomato being thrown).

With directly confronting the realization that these shocking disparities and occurrences were less than a century ago, comes the silver lining that the current state of progressive America wouldn’t exist without ever facing these events. The attitudes, followed by the virtuous actions of the 13 plaintiffs and U.S. Justices in the Brown v. Board of Education court case, Ruby Bridges, Norman Rockwell, and among others take precedence in all eras. This set of demonstrated ethics and integrity should remain present in all thoughts and actions, at all times, especially in the times of present or upcoming turmoil; so when faced with weight of the world, we can still move past the presented issue and evolve as a united whole.

 

Annotated Bibliographies

Allman, William. “President Obama Meets Civil Rights Icon Ruby Bridges.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, 11 July 2011, obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2011/07/15/president-obama-meets-civil-rights-icon-ruby-bridges.

This archive was created by White House Curator William Allman, showcases the event in which civil rights icon, Ruby Bridges, met former President Barack Obama. This event was held as the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of her history-changing walk. Included in this was background information on the painting and Brown v. Board of Education, a picture of the two, gazing in pride at the painting outside of the Oval Office, along with the thoughts from Bridges herself and Obama. I implemented the paraphrasing of powerful statements given by Allman within my essay, for the purpose of supporting my own claims and providing a credible source (a curator who has had his job for 40 years and been around multiple generations and presidents). In addition to his own knowledgeable background, he was also there to witness the meeting of Bridges and Obama and interpret the painting alongside them. 

Bennett, Lennie. “Civil Rights Icon Ruby Bridges Hall Discusses Norman Rockwell’s Famous

Painting.” Tampa Bay, Florida News, The Times Publishing Company, 21 Apr. 2015, http://www.tampabay.com/things-to-do/visualarts/civil-rights-icon-ruby-bridges-hall-discusses-norman-rockwells-famous/2226397.

This article was a feature on the Ruby Bridges, Norman Rockwell’s painting, The Problem We All Live With, and the history behind it all. Unlike other sources that I had come across, Bridges had actually shared more information and background on the process of she got to be the first African American to attend an all-white school, with the art critic of Tampa Bay Times. I hadn’t been aware of the this testing process that she, as well as five other students had undergone–all in efforts to be the chosen students to integrate two schools. This plays a vital role in the key elements and background that I provided because it offers more clarity on the topic, while implementing ethos because it was presented by Bridges herself.

“Documents Related to Brown v. Board of Education.” National Archives and Records

Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/brown-v-board/bios.html.

This government run and researched website presented background information on people included specifically in the Brown v. Board of Education case. With that, I was able to use the information to solidify and fact check previous knowledge I had on the topic because this was all material researched by qualified, high ranking government officials. After doing so, I used the information in my text, so that the reader could obtain more background knowledge on the topic.

Greenspan, Jesse. “10 Things You Should Know About Brown v. Board of

Education.”History.com, A&E Television Networks, 16 May 2014, http://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-should-know-about-brown-v-board-of-education.

The website above contained facts on the Brown v. Board of Education court case–ones that many weren’t familiar with because of the misrepresentation or exclusion of details in historical lessons. The facts displayed are more vital elements that impact the history and presentation of the case itself. These included many facts that I also had been unaware of before the extensive research process that I engulfed myself in. I was also able to classify this as a credible source because this being a prominent source and database for historical information.

“Norman Rockwell’s ‘The Problem We All Live With’ To Be Exhibited at The White House –

Norman Rockwell Museum – The Home for American Illustration.” Norman Rockwell Museum, 1 Mar. 2017, http://www.nrm.org/2011/05/norman-rockwells-the-problem-we-all-live-with-to-be-exhibited-at-the-white-house/.

This source is the official website for Norman Rockwell’s Museum, which includes a brief background on the painting, the time period, Rockwell’s vision, and insight from Ruby Bridges. Furthermore, it is also stated that Ruby Bridges actually serves on the board of the museum–giving the source more credibility. She is able to provide information that the general public or other members of the board that wouldn’t be able to offer on the topic because they hadn’t lived through the event in the same perspective as she had. I chose to use two quotes from this source. I purposefully chose to implement the quotation of Bridges under the picture of her and former President Barack Obama, so that the quote could stand on its own, speak for itself, and be more impactful. In addition to that, I used a quote from Rockwell, so that the reader would have a solid understanding on his intention in creating the artwork and his takeaway from it all.

“Order of Argument in the Case, Brown v. Board of Education.” National Archives and Records

Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/brown-case-order.

This government confirmed research publishes information on Brown v. Board of Education for people to confirm prior knowledge or gain a better understanding of the event. The objective presentation of this source also affirms that this is furthermore a credible source because opinions are avoided altogether. I used this information to refresh my memory on the topic, validate past information known or heard, and also receive more insight.

 

Citations for Images not yet Accounted for

Ruby Bridges on her historical walk to William Frantz Elementary School (1960) :  https://www.watchtheyard.com/activism/ruby-bridges-only-62/