The Problem We All Live With, 1964

Rockwell's first assignment for Look magazine was an illustration of a six-year-old African-American school girl being escorted by four U.S. marshals to her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans. Ordered to proceed with school desegregation after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Louisiana lagged behind until pressure from Federal Judge Skelly Wright forced the school board to begin desegregation on November 14, 1960.

Letters to the editor were a mix of praise and criticism. One Florida reader wrote, "Rockwell's picture is worth a thousand words...I am saving this issue for my children with the hope that by the time they become old enough to comprehend its meaning, the subject matter will have become history." Other readers objected to Rockwell's image. A man from Texas wrote "Just where does Norman Rockwell live? Just where does your editor live? Probably both of these men live in all-white, highly expensive, highly exclusive neighborhoods. Oh what hypocrites all of you are!" The most shocking letter came from a man in New Orleans who called Rockwell's work, "just some more vicious lying propaganda being used for the crime of racial integration by such black journals as Look, Life, etc." But irate opinions did not stop Rockwell from pursuing his course. In 1965, he illustrated the murder of civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and in 1967, he chose children, once again, to illustrate desegregation, this time in our suburbs.

In an interview later in his life, Rockwell recalled that he once had to paint out an African-American person in a group picture since The Saturday Evening Post policy dictated showing African-Americans in service industry jobs only. Freed from such restraints, Rockwell seemed to look for opportunities to correct the editorial prejudices reflected in his previous work. The Problem We All Live With and Murder in Mississippi ushered in that new era for Rockwell.

(Video: watch an exclusive interview with Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to attend a white school in Louisiana)

The Problem We All Live With, Norman Rockwell, 1964. Oil on canvas, 36" x 58". Story illustration for Look, January 14, 1964. From the permanent collection of Norman Rockwell Museum.