Ruby Bridges, the name in isolation might conjure up an image of a bridge in an imperial palace adorned with precious stones. Ruby was a different kind of bridge. A bridge between cultures, between eras, a bridge between apartheid and a hoped for equality.
The 1964 painting above, by Norman Rockwell is called “The problem we all live with”. It captures the moment from November 14th 1960 when the little black girl, Ruby Bridges, was “integrated” into an all white elementary school in Louisiana.
On the wall to the left of the front marshalls the initials KKK. Above Ruby the N word appears, and to the right of that a hurled piece of fruit. He has intentionally framed out the marshalls heads, making them taller, anonymous, more powerful. The yellow ruler, badges and armbands immediately call to mind the yellow star of David as used by the Nazi regime. The sparkling white dress is like an image from a detergent commercial, evoking the racist ads where little dark children were washed white and “clean”.
Also captured in the iconic photograph below, the tiny girl flanked by U.S. Marshalls. It is the inspiration for the painting and you can see where the artistic licence was applied.
Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks later recalled, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very very proud of her.”
Many white parents reacted by withdrawing their children from the school. All but one teacher refused to teach Ruby, so she had a year in a class, on her own. Her teacher was Barbara Henry from West Roxbury, an Irish Catholic area of Boston.