Stockbridge, Mass. It was an image that captured the country's attention: a 6-year-old black girl walking into an all-white school in New Orleans, protected by federal marshals.
Ruby Bridges was physically protected by the lawmen escorting her to the William Frantz school on Nov. 14, 1960 -- six years after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered schools to be racially mixed in its Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
But she wasn't shielded from the insults and shouts of angry white protesters and parents bent on keeping their children away from the first-grader who helped desegregate public schools in the American South.
The photographs that appeared in national newspapers reminded the country that although desegregation was the law of the land, racism was still rampant.
The scene also stirred the social conscience of Norman Rockwell, a painter of perfect lives in small New England towns who was sometimes criticized as too nostalgic. Moved by Ruby's story, he used his brushes as a weapon against bigotry.
In an illustration published as a two-page spread in Look magazine in 1964, Rockwell re-created his idea of Ruby's walk to school. Dressed in a pure white dress to match the ribbon in her pony tail, the brave little girl marches along the sidewalk flanked by four federal marshals who tower over her. On the wall to her right, a blood-red tomato is splattered like an exploded period to punctuate an offensive word.
The painting marked a shift in Rockwell's focus. Instead of churning out sentimental images surrounding his own life, the artist began addressing cutting-edge issues.
An exhibition that opened in early June at The Norman Rockwell Museum examines the last decade of Rockwell's career, when the artist challenged his viewers to look at racism, poverty, space travel and politics.
"He was risking his legacy by doing these topical paintings," Linda Pero, the museum's curator, said. "The works were upsetting to many of his followers because this wasn't the same Rockwell anymore."
Toward social activism
While the painting of Ruby Bridges was an immediate departure for Rockwell, it would take decades before the child at the center of his canvas grew up to realize how important the image was.
Bridges first found out about the painting, titled "The Problem We All Live With," when she was a teenager. And while that made her realize her first day of school was more than just a youngster's rite of passage, the issue, she says, was "dead and buried in my memory."
There were other things to occupy her thoughts. Bridges' parents divorced when she was in the seventh grade, and she was raised by her mother in the housing projects of New Orleans.
"There were times we didn't have food to eat, so being in that painting was never in the forefront of my mind," said Bridges, who spoke at the exhibition's opening. "How do you feel important when you're struggling?"
Bridges' attitude about her historic role started changing about 10 years ago. After helping her childhood psychologist promote a children's book he wrote based on her year as a first-grader, Bridges realized people were interested in her story. And as a volunteer at the school she helped desegregate, she knew that racism was an adult idea that was too easily taught to children.
After a 15-year-long career as a travel agent, the married mother of four sons established the Ruby Bridges Foundation and now travels the country delivering speeches and talking with students to promote tolerance and to discourage prejudice and racism.
The painting Rockwell did of her walk to school wasn't his only foray into social issues.
Unique vantage point
In 1965, Rockwell painted "Murder in Mississippi," recalling the story of three civil rights workers who were killed by Ku Klux Klan members. In a more innocent, but equally provocative work, Rockwell painted an interracial encounter in the suburbs as a group of white children meet two black children moving into their neighborhood.
His illustrations also challenged America's involvement in Vietnam, and sketches in the current exhibit examine his interest in war protesters.
And as much as he was confronting the issues dividing the country during the 1960s, Rockwell was also fascinated by the stories that uplifted the nation.
Although he questioned the need for a space exploration program at a time when the country was conflicted with racial unrest and the war in Vietnam, he accepted assignments that helped NASA "humanize" its missions.
In the early 1960s, he painted "The Longest Step" to portray astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young as they suited up for the first manned Gemini space mission. By the end of the decade, he illustrated the first steps on the Moon in "The Final Impossibility."
A series of paintings he did in 1966 highlighted the newly founded Peace Corps that not only celebrated the young volunteers in the program, but highlighted global issues of poverty in struggling countries such as Ethiopia, Colombia and India.
"Rockwell had a unique vantage point because he had the attention of the nation," said Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Rockwell museum.
"What he illustrated conveyed a strong message. For him to take his affectionate following and turn to these difficult and topical subjects helped the public ask questions and think about what was going on in the world around them."