Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” installed in the White House last month, shows U.S. marshals escorting Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old African-American girl, into a New Orleans elementary school in 1960 as court-ordered integration met with an angry and defiant response from the white community.
The thrust of the painting is not subtle. America’s vilest racial epithet appears in letters several inches high at the top of the canvas. To the left side, the letters “KKK” are plainly visible. The crowds, mostly women who gathered daily to taunt Bridges as she went to a largely empty school, are not shown in the picture. But the racist graffiti and a splattered tomato convey the hostile atmosphere.
Despite the historic nature of his election, Obama has rarely dwelt on racial issues. His speech Sunday dedicating a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. near the National Mall will be an exception to the pattern, a rare public embrace of the civil rights movement.
His choice of the Rockwell painting was a more private statement. Obama has never mentioned it in a speech or public event. And while White House aides confirmed that Obama approved bringing it to the West Wing, they declined to discuss how the decision was made or why.
Urban League President Marc Morial, who viewed the painting during a recent visit to see the president, said Rockwell’s use of the racial slur conveys the hostility Bridges faced.
“It gives people an opportunity to see that she wasn’t walking to Sunday school and, in fact, she faced the jeers, she faced the hate,” Morial said.
Still, at 3 feet high and nearly 5 feet wide, the painting is by far the most striking civil rights-related art in the White House. Rockwell painted the image in 1963, and it appeared on the cover of Look magazine in January 1964. It will remain about 20 feet from the Oval Office, in a well-trafficked hallway just outside the Cabinet Room, until it goes back on tour in October.