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  • November 13th, 2020

SHADOW ON THE WALL

By Joel M. Vance

 

In a few days we will be celebrating Thanksgiving and doubtless there will be many reproductions of a painting that typifies what us white folks like to think of as the ideal Thanksgiving dinner. Painter Norman Rockwell showed a happy family gathered around the dinner table, steaming turkey waiting to be sliced. It was the quintessential joyful family gathering. Of course, all the family participants were white, but never mind. Rockwell also painted “The Four Freedoms” (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want (the subject in the Thanksgiving portrait), and freedom from fear) which rallied the country during World War II.

 

But of all the 4000 paintings and illustrations Norman Rockwell created, the one he titled “The Problem We All Live With” is perhaps today the most relevant, more so than the comforting one of a white family celebrating a national holiday.

 

I am wondering how many thousands, if not millions, of voters now celebrating the election of Joe Biden and, Kamala Harris as president and vice president missed a poignant and significant Facebook post now circulating which pictures Ms. Harris striding determinedly along a sidewalk carrying a briefcase, obviously marching into the future with purpose.

 

Overlooked by me and, I suspect, a multitude of viewers is a shadow figure on the wall beside Ms. Harris. After seeing the image a number of times, I finally registered a comment by someone saying it had brought her to tears. And then I realized what I was seeing.

 

The shadow is not that of Ms. Harris, but is that of Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African-American girl who, in 1964 was the subject of a painting by Norman Rockwell which appeared as a centerfold in “Look” Magazine. The entire painting shows the little girl being escorted to school by federal marshals while the wall along which she is walking depicts racial slurs and a splattered tomato, symbols of the despicable reaction to her in the actual 1960 event which inspired the painting.

 

Ms. Bridges was on her way to enter William Frantz elementary school, a previously all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. It was not an isolated incident and it happened six years after the Supreme Court had issued its landmark Brown versus Board of Education ruling in 1954 which desegregated public schools. White America reacted with the despicable racism and violence that has tainted American history for centuries and which, to our everlasting shame, lingers today.

 

The crowd which threatened the little girl with violence repeatedly was largely composed of white women—think about that. There were an uncomfortable number of white women shouting during Trump rallies during the interminable recent presidential campaign and I suspect some of the modern vulgar rhetoric came right out of the nineteen sixties. The New Orleans mob was not composed of Barroom Babes or Biker Bitches. They were middle-class white moms, professed Christians, regular churchgoers, who would adamantly proclaim themselves without a mean bone in their bodies. But their minds were infected with the virulent virus of racism and doubtless they would pass that infection along to their children just as it had been passed along to them by their parents.

 

The cost to the Bridges family was widespread. Her father lost his job and the grocery stores where they shopped refused to serve them. Her sharecropping grandparents were evicted from the farm where they had lived for 25 years. The New Orleans school situation proved as chaotic as the overall racial picture in the city. While the elementary school was forced to admit black children, only one did enter, Ruby Bridges, and only one teacher remained to tutor the lone black child who braved the angry mob—Barbara Henry, a-white Boston native. Thus, the school became a student body of one and a faculty of one.

 

It’s also significant that, before black children could be allowed into southern schools, at least in New Orleans, they had to pass a test to prove they were eligible. Ruby passed the test which no doubt caused consternation among the white school officials who had done their damnedest to prevent her from associating with their lily white progeny.

 

Think of the incredible courage that Ruby Bridges had—a 6-year-old girl, no matter the color, reviled by angry adult women one of whom threatened to poison her (she brought her lunch from home from then on).  Another woman exhibited a coffin with a black doll inside. One of the marshals who guarded Ruby later said, “she showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we all were very proud of her.” In 2000, Ruby Bridges was named an honorary federal deputy marshal.

 

Ruby Bridges not only survived the ordeal of her courageous act, but grew into a now 66-year-old admirable adult. In 1999 she formed the Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote “the values of tolerance, respect and appreciation of all differences.” She added “racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.” President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a civilian. She also reunited with Pam Foreman Testroet who as a 5-year-old white girl with her mother defied the angry mob joined Ruby and effectively integrated the Frantz school. Ruby also is the author of two books.

 

In 2010, Ms. Bridges, then 57 years old, decided to urge Ppresident Barack Obama, the first African-American president in American history, to display the Rockwell painting in the White House. With the help of Senator Mary Landrieu from Louisiana, the wonderful late Representative John Lewis of Georgia and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, all Democrats. Mr. Obama did hang the painting in a hallway outside the Oval Office. As he and Ms. Bridges admired the painting he said, “I think it’s fair to say that if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here and we wouldn’t be looking at this together.”

 

I admit that when I realized the significance of the Harris\shadow image my eyes filled with tears because it all too dramatically recalled my own time living and working in Montgomery, Alabama, during the late nineteen fifties and my own background living in a small Missouri town dominated by white people, but populated largely by black people who were segregated, and of going to an all white elementary and high school.

 

I regret that I went to two all white elementary schools in Chicago, finished elementary school, high school and four years of college in Missouri all in segregated schools and it wasn’t until the nineteen seventies, an adult married with children that I worked with African-American coworkers and found that, guess what, racial unease was a white folks problem that should not exist. I cannot know the stress that people of color face continually and to believe  that “black people have come a long way” as I so often hear white people say, is a fiction constructed by us white folks to feel better, but that does not reflect reality.

 

Rockwell’s painting dramatically pointed up the racial separation in the country more graphically than any torrent of outrage by racial activists ever could. It was a quintessential “one picture is worth 10,000 words.” The painting was America’s gain and the Saturday Evening Post’s loss. Rockwell, who painted hundreds of covers for the Post had become disenchanted a year earlier because they wouldn’t let him express his liberal views on the political scene. “Look Magazine” welcomed him and his views on civil rights and racial integration. Rockwell, who often used local people as models in his paintings, used a girl named Linda Gunn as his model for Ruby Bridges.

 

Ironically, the painting also was used to gain sympathy for O.J. Simpson in his trial by his lawyer “if the glove don’t fit you must acquit” Johnny Cochran. The original graced the White House wall from July to October 2011. Too bad it could not have hung there until 2016 when Donald Trump took over. Trump, characteristically chose to hang and celebrate a portrait of Andrew Jackson, possibly the most overt racist president we’ve had.  Jackson owned a thousand acre plantation maintained by black slaves, and also was responsible for forcing Native Americans westward on the infamous Trail of Tears. There is no way in which his awful presidency does not represent the worst of America’s racist legacy. And yes, Jackson was the founder of the Democratic Party, and also reprehensible was Woodrow Wilson a Democrat and a racist which proves nothing except that racism is not a possession of either of the two dominant parties in American history.

 

In fact, during the time that I spent in Montgomery, all prominent southern politicians were Democrats.  One of the worst was Orval Faubus, Governor of Arkansas. Indirectly, he was responsible for my  involvement with the desegregation of the nation’s public schools, but even remotely the experience was jolting. In 1957, three years after the landmark Supreme Court decision to desegregate the nation’s schools, (Ruby Bridges was born within days of that landmark Supreme Court decision) and three years before Little Miss Bridges’ incredibly brave decision, nine African-American students enrolled at Little Rock’s Central High School. All were from previously all-black schools, all were exceptional students and eminently qualified to attend Central school.

 

Arkansas governor Faubus called out the state National Guard to “preserve the peace”. Read that as “preserve the whiteness of Central High School.” Ultimately, President Dwight Eisenhower, activated the 101st Airborne and nationalized the Arkansas guard, effectively removing control of the state troops  from Faubus and providing federal protection for the nine black students.

 

Many years later my son, Andy, and I were duck hunting in Arkansas and our local hunting partner got permission for us to hunt on a rice farm. We found the owner and several of his buddies making sausage and helped them trim pork butts for grinding before we hunted. I thought it would make a good story and told the owner I’d like to talk to him for details. “I don’t much like writers,” he said. “A long time ago I was in Little Rock and there was a bunch of pictures that got out all over the country that didn’t make us look very good and I haven’t been very friendly to writers ever since.” Almost instantly I recalled a photo from that Central High School situation which showed Arkansas guardsmen armed with bayonet tipped rifles confronting the African-American youngsters who came to be known as the Little Rock Nine.

 

He was one of those guys! I dropped the conversation. I was there to duck hunt, not argue racial politics with a redneck. The pork sausage was good; the duck hunting was not. But the incident has simmered in my mind like that frying sausage over the years.

 

Norman Rockwell also painted another portrait of his fellow Americans, not as well-known as the turkey dinner titled “Freedom From Want”. The lesser-known painting is crowded mostly with children but some adults and is titled “Golden Rule”. It portrays people of all colors and ethnic backgrounds and printed over the figures in the painting is the well-known but all too seldom practiced Golden Rule “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

 

It’s an American shame that in the New Orleans of 1960 so many people forgot that gold colored admonition in favor of a darker and far more shameful hue.

 

A postscript: Lucille Bridges, Ruby’s mother who escorted her daughter by the angry mob on the 1st day before the federal marshals took over, has died the age of 86. Rest in peace, brave mother.

 

 

 

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