The problem we all live with
Ruby Bridges was 6 years old when federal marshals escorted her through a screaming crowd of angry white adults so that she could be the first black child to attend an all-white school in the South.
On the morning of Nov. 14, 1960, the marshals drove Ruby and her mother to her new school, just five blocks from her home. Two of the men walked in front her, and two behind. Four years later, this historic moment appeared on the cover of Look magazine, in a painting by Norman Rockwell titled "The Problem We All Live With."
All. Every last one of us.
In the painting, Ruby is dressed in white – white dress with a bow at the small of her back, white socks, white sneakers – and marching forward with a ruler and notebook in her hand. The marshals are wearing suits and yellow armbands. She is walking against the backdrop of a wall splattered with thrown tomatoes and the word "N—" scrawled just above her head.
She was a brave little girl that day. Years later, one of her federal escorts, Charles Burks, said she never cried, never whimpered. "She just marched along like a little soldier."
Ruby entered the school and spent the first day in the principal’s office. Ultimately, only one teacher – Barbara Henry, a new transplant from Boston – agreed to instruct her. Ruby was Mrs. Henry’s only student in the class for most of that year because all of the other parents refused to allow their white children to learn alongside her. She brought lunch from home because marshals were afraid a woman might make good on her threat to poison her food. Another woman approached her one morning with a black doll in a wooden coffin.
Rockwell’s oil painting, on a 35-by-58-inch canvas, is an iconic image from that dark period in our history. In 2010, President Barack Obama requested that the painting hang outside the Oval Office to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ruby Bridges’ historic walk into that school. The following summer, she visited the White House to view the painting with the president.
"I think it’s fair to say that if it hadn’t been for you guys," he told her, "I might not be here, and we wouldn’t be looking at this together."
She was visibly moved. "Just having him say that meant a lot to me," she said later that day. "But to be standing shoulder to shoulder with history and viewing history, it’s just once in a lifetime."
I hadn’t planned to start this column with the story of Ruby Bridges. I was going to first tell you about a political cartoon by conservative Glenn McCoy that is getting a lot of attention this week. I changed my mind after spending time earlier today with my journalism students in the ethics class I am teaching at Kent State University.
First I showed my students McCoy’s cartoon for the Belleville News-Democrat, which replaces Ruby Bridges with an infantilized version of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She, too, is flanked by marshals; the wall is still splattered with tomatoes. But the graffiti over her head is "CONSERVATIVE." McCoy added a swipe at the largest teachers union by scrawling "NEA" at the wall’s edge.
The cartoon is meant to depict DeVos, whose appointment required an unprecedented vote by the vice president to break a tie in the Senate, as a victim. She was, after all, temporarily blocked by protesters from entering a school in Washington, D.C. She entered through a different door, and that was that for the white billionaire.
"So like Ruby Bridges," says absolutely no one familiar with civil rights history in this country.
After I showed my students Rockwell’s painting, we talked about that brave little black girl and the history behind Rockwell’s painting. Our discussion confirmed, yet again, my faith in these millennials. They struggled mightily with how to strike a balance between McCoy’s First Amendment right to express his opinions with his art and their outrage over the false equivalence of this cartoon.
The reluctant consensus: Run McCoy’s cartoon, but counter it with the image of Rockwell’s painting, and tell the story of Ruby Bridges.
This is "The Problem We All Live With."
We know what we have to do.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism.