Little black girl
Smartly dressed in white
Beginning first grade in New Orleans
Who is Ruby Bridges?
Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African American girl, is pictured on her first day of class at the William Frantz School in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Clutching school supplies and clad in a [starchy] white dress, Bridges looks like any other student starting the first grade. What surrounds the young girl, however, is not typical. Flanked by US Marshals and strolling before a wall covered in racial graffiti and a recently thrown tomato, it is clear that Bridges’ experience is exceptional—and prompted by politics.
Following the 1954 Brown V. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Bridges was one of a few students selected to start the desegregation process in New Orleans. Bridges was the only one of these children sent to William Frantz School. While her walk to the institution’s front doors was marred by a violent mob, Bridges did not buckle under pressure. In fact, “she showed a lot of courage,” Charles Burks, one of her Marshal escorts, said. “She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very, very proud of her.”
Ruby Bridges in 2011
Bridges, however, attributes her mature handling of the situation not to bravery, but to childhood innocence. In 2011, she explained: “The girl in that painting at six years old knew absolutely nothing about racism—I was going to school that day. So every time I see that, I think about the fact that I was an innocent child that knew absolutely nothing about what was happening that day.”
Ruby Bridges Visits the White House
Norman Rockwell, the Iconoclast?
Renowned artist of twentieth-century nostalgic paintings, Rockwell also expressed his indignation at inequities in the American social system with his art. While there is certainly nothing wrong about portraying such classic scenes of Americana, paintings in this post are a stark departure from the jubilant, white faces around a table festooned with a Thanksgiving turkey, or a white boy finding his dad’s Santa suit stuffed into a dresser drawer.
The Back Story: The Painting of Ruby Bridges
Rockwell’s first assignment for Look magazine was an illustration of six-year-old Ruby Bridges.
Letters to the editor were a mix of praise and criticism. One Florida reader wrote, “Rockwell’s picture is worth a thousand words…I am saving this issue for my children with the hope that by the time they become old enough to comprehend its meaning, the subject matter will have become history.” Other readers objected to Rockwell’s image. A man from Texas wrote “Just where does Norman Rockwell live? Just where does your editor live? Probably both of these men live in all-white, highly expensive, highly exclusive neighborhoods. Oh what hypocrites all of you are!” … But irate opinions did not stop Rockwell from pursing his course. In 1965, he illustrated the murder of civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Then, in 1967, Rockwell chose children, once again, to illustrate desegregation, this time in American suburbs.
In an interview later in his life, Rockwell recalled that he once had to paint out an African-American person in a group picture since The Saturday Evening Post dictated showing African-Americans in service industry jobs only. Freed from such restraints, Rockwell seemed to look for opportunities to correct the editorial prejudices reflected in his precious work. The Problem We All Live with and Murder in Mississippi ushered in that new era for Rockwell.
“. . . and a little child shall lead them.” ~ Isaiah 11:6b
Are you familiar with either of these Rockwell paintings?
What other statements about social justice do you see implied here?
Do you have first-hand (or observed) experience with racial prejudice or other bias?