President Barack Obama has taken a decidedly low-key approach to racial issues since he became America’s first black president two years ago. But in a hallway outside the Oval Office, he has placed a head-turning painting depicting one of the ugliest racial episodes in U.S. history.
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.
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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.
But in an interview with POLITICO, Bridges, now 56 and still living in New Orleans, said she began reaching out to the president last year — through Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick — to move the painting to the White House because she believed the image would resonate with Obama.
“It did have a lot to do with this particular president,” Bridges said. “He is a president of mixed race. So I believe he is about the same things that I am. You cannot look at a person and judge him or her by the color of their skin. … I did feel if anyone would hang the painting, it would be him.”
Last month, Bridges stopped by the White House to see the painting in its new — though temporary — home.
“I think it’s fair to say that if it hadn’t been for you guys, I might not be here, and we might not be looking at this together,” Obama told her, according to a videotape on the White House website.
Bridges says the work conveys a message of integration and “bringing people together,” but on its surface, Rockwell’s painting depicts jarring cruelty, hatred and fear.
“The N-word there — it sure stops you,” said William Kloss, an art historian and expert on the White House collections. “There’s a realistic reason for having the graffiti as a slur, [but] it’s also right in the middle of the painting. … It’s a painting that could not be hung even for a brief time in the public spaces [of the White House], I’m pretty sure of that.”
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.
“It is jarring to see it in this piece of art, but … it provides the context of the time,” said Roland Martin, an African-American radio and TV host and political commentator for CNN. “When you see that word, you see her, you see the soldiers, you realize, ‘I really get this.’”
Despite, or perhaps because of the groundbreaking nature of his presidency, Obama’s handling of issues of race has been subdued. He has hosted Black History Month events, but the civil rights page on the White House website makes little mention of racial discrimination. When eight surviving members of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike came to Washington in April, Obama received them privately in the Map Room. A still photo of the meeting with Obama was posted on the White House blog.
“I don’t believe Obama’s uncomfortable talking about race. I do know it’s a politically charged issue with hypersensitivity on all sides of the equation,” said April Ryan, who is African-American and a longtime White House reporter for American Urban Radio Network. “I’ve been told by people here they don’t want to deal with a lot of ‘race’ because it overamplifies. … One thing that will always follow this president is race, so they have to, in my estimation, downplay it.”
Despite signs that at least some tea party events last fall were racially tinged, Obama has repeatedly told interviewers that he doubts race plays any significant role in the angry reactions of some Americans to his policies or in the long-festering claims that he was born outside the U.S.
Ryan said Obama and his aides also have brushed aside calls for programs targeting sharply higher unemployment rates in the African-American community.
“I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks. I’m the president of the United States,” Obama told Ryan in a December 2009 interview. “What I can do is make sure that I am passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That, in turn, is going to help lift up the African-American community.”
Ryan also noted that while Obama has never displayed any race-related artwork as provocative as the Rockwell painting, he does keep emblems of the civil rights movement near him. A small bust of King is in the Oval Office, and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation hangs on the wall. Obama also has a pamphlet from the 1963 March on Washington sitting nearby, said Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., where “The Problem We All Live With” is displayed when it’s not on tour.
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.
“It’s large and wide and calls a lot of attention to itself. … He pulled no punches with it, and it’s a terrific composition,” Kloss said. “I don’t think there is anything [in the White House] comparable to this.”
“If you’re a young staffer, who wasn’t alive at that time, you’re going to stop in your tracks and say: ‘Was it really like that?’” Martin said.
Some other artwork in the White House could be considered controversial but in a more subtle way, Kloss said. “There are works that would be edgy if people knew what they were about,” such as a Frederic Remington sculpture of drunk cowboys and a melancholy 1917 Childe Hassam painting of flags on Fifth Avenue in New York as America prepared to enter World War I.
In 2009, the Obamas also borrowed for the White House’s private spaces a couple of works with racial themes. One was Glenn Ligon’s “Black Like Me No. 2” — which features a repeating line from John Howard Griffin’s 1961 book on the experience of a white man who turned his skin black to study racism in the South: “All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence.”
Another Obama-era installation was William H. Johnson’s “Booker T. Washington,” which depicts the civil rights leader teaching black students.
“The president and the first lady have made an effort to tell our nation’s whole history and focus on inclusion,” Moffatt said. “They’ve not focused exclusively on the African-American heritage, but they’ve also not shied away from it,” she said, adding that there are few “narrative” works of art about the civil rights era.
Still, some civil rights leaders see his decision to put up the Rockwell painting as an empty gesture in light of his general reticence on race.
“Obama’s in campaign mode,” said Michael Meyers of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. “The Norman Rockwell painting is so historic and so old that [Obama’s] statement is safe. … Obama makes no statements about integration today, and the schools are more segregated than they’ve ever been. Where is his Education Department on that?”
Bridges said she had little time to talk with Obama during their meeting but believes he understands and to some degree personifies the message of racial tolerance that she delivers.
“Even though there were mobs outside that school every day for a whole year, the person that greeted me every morning was [my teacher], a white woman, who actually risked her life as well,” Bridges said. “This [painting] will be a great way for Obama to say to anyone who comes to his office: ‘This is what I’m about.’”