By Josh Gerstein | Politico
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.
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.