The Problem We All Live With

Known primarily as an illustrator, Norman Rockwell drew numerous pictures for magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post, which utilized hundreds of his images over a period of about 25 years.  According to Hennessey and Knutson, “His 322 cover images for The Saturday Evening Post alone would establish him as a primary visual influence on several generations of Americans” (19).  All of Rockwell’s illustrations and paintings are highly detailed and realistic, while still maintaining a cartoonish look.  Rockwell’s popularity stems from his quaint representations of quotidian life because they don’t require any prior knowledge or a background in art to understand and appreciate his work.  In addition to being famous for magazine covers, Rockwell also drew advertisement photos for some of the largest companies including Pepsi-Cola, McDonald’s, American Red Cross, Coca-Cola, Ford, KFC and numerous others.  His art fits the historical periods and often depicts society’s views on family, gender roles, and war.  Although Rockwell is more famed for his advertising photos and quaint pictures of white suburban life, including children and families, he also depicted challenging social issues.

Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With (1964) displays a young Ruby Bridges walking to school, escorted by four white US Marshalls as she integrates William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana.  In contrast to his more jovial paintings of young children with blushed and smiling faces, Ruby’s face is more somber and concentrated as she stares in the direction she is led by the Marshalls.  Rather than attempting to sell a product, Rockwell sought to sell support for an important issue to the public.  He was always sympathetic to African-Americans and Civil Rights as he favored the integration of a University at Vermont sorority and was told he could only depict minorities as servants on magazine covers (Hennessey & Knutson 43).

In defiance of this command, Rockwell continued to illustrate racial issues. Several key legislative acts became the driving force of the Civil Rights Movement and a big influence on Rockwell’s political art.  The landmark court case, Brown v. Board of Education banned segregation in schools allowing Ruby to set foot in an all-white school without being turned away and led the way for the integration of the rest of society. In fact, integration, in particular, became an issue to Rockwell as seen with his illustrations from the 1960s.  His painting titled Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi) (1965) depicts the killings of the three young men, two whites and one black, involved in the Freedom Summer of 1965.  Rockwell’s New Kids in the Neighborhood (1967) portrays the integration of a white neighborhood by a newly arrived black family.

Coincidentally, Rudy Bridges was born in Tylertown, Mississippi on September 8, 1954, the same year as the decision of Brown v. Board of Education.  While Ruby walked to school, four US Marshalls escorted her in order to ensure her safety from the angry whites distraught over integration.  Rockwell’s painting reflects the reality of that day.  As people screamed, yelled derogatory slurs, and threw objects at her, Ruby remained steadfast and courageous as she is depicted in the painting.  There were, however, moments that scared her, as the Women’s History Museum reports, “what did frighten her was a woman holding a black baby doll in a coffin.”  The indirect threat of violence implicit in the woman’s actions detail how tense race relations were, to the point that she would threaten a child.  Again showing how no matter how old you were in the 60s, you still faced the same problems and dangers as adults.  Rockwell has the word “KKK” etched on the wall in his painting, showing the more ominous threat to blacks in the South since the KKK was known for terrorizing and murdering African-Americans long before the Civil Rights Movement began.

The graffiti on the wall alludes to the dark history behind school integration and other Civil Rights Movement measures.  KKK stands for the “Klu Klux Klan.”  The group rose from the Redeemer Governments of the South and favored Jim Crow laws created to disenfranchise blacks, even after The Civil War Amendments were added to the US Constitution.  The KKK were racist whites that hated minorities and religions other than Christianity.  Members dressed in white hooded sheets; they terrorized African-Americans and any whites that supported blacks by lynching and beating them.  The KKK often placed burning crosses in the yards of people as warning symbols, striking fear.  By hiding their faces and riding sheeted horses, the Klan members struck numerous times often without being apprehended.  To make things worse, in the South many KKK members held authoritative positions such as law enforcement and government officials.  This allowed them to get away with the horrific crimes and permit it to continue under their knowledge.  Rockwell ostensibly portrays this fact in The Problem.

In Rockwell’s painting, none of the Marshalls’ faces can be seen and the audience can detect that all four are white based on the coloring of their hands.  This fact seems to elude that the Marshalls may not be protecting Ruby, rather they have confined her and are leading her to anguish.  There’s no implication that they are threatening her or not protecting her—but the parallels between the anonymity of the KKK and the facelessness of the guards might be read as sinister or troubling and could allude to the title—this is a problem that we all live with, whether we like to admit it or not.  Along the wall in the painting is another hidden historical reference.

The food splatter against the wall seems to anticipate the sit-ins that would later occur all across the country.  Those that participated in the sit-ins frequently had food thrown and poured on them.  Much like integration can be considered a gateway for the Civil Rights Movement, so can the tomato splatter as a foreshadowing of the numerous sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement.  Rather than directly create a propaganda piece, Norman chose a work of art that would make people think.  Advertisements make people want to buy things that will benefit them.  This piece displays something that is bad for everyone and involves all people.   Rather than just appealing to the upper class that can afford to “keep up with the jones’s,” Norman appeals to the entire population in that no matter what race, age, or social class you are a part of, racism is something that we all deal with and have to face.

It is no accident that Rockwell painted The Problem We All Live With ten years after Ruby Bridges first set foot in William Frantz Elementary School.  The 1960s were the essence of the Civil Rights Movement.  Ruby Bridges made steps toward fixing the problem of segregation in the 1950s, much like the Civil Rights Movement made steps toward fixing the problem of racism and violence towards blacks in the 1960s.  Rockwell would not allow people to turn a blind eye to an important issue while he had the ability to reach a wide audience, especially whites.


Hennessey, Maureen Hart, and Anne Knutson. Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People. Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 1999. Print.
“Ruby Bridges.” National Women’s History Museum. National Women’s History Museum, n.d. Web. 12 July 2016.
Stoltz, Dr. Donald, Marshall Louis Stoltz, and Marshall B. Earle. The Advertising World of Norman Rockwell. N.p.: Madison Square, 1985. Print.