“The Problem We All Live With,” Norman Rockwell, oil on canvas, 1964.
In 1960 in New Orleans, Louisiana, where public schools were segregated by race, six-year-old Ruby Bridges was one of the first four African American children to attend a previously all-white public school. Because she and her family were threatened and harassed by the other children at her school, their families, and other segregationists, Ruby Bridges had to be escorted to and from school by U.S. Deputy Marshalls. Ruby Bridges’ arrival at her new school is depicted in “The Problem We All Live With.” “The Problem We All Live With” was painted by Norman Rockwell, an American realist, in 1964. In the painting, racial slurs and the letters “KKK” are scrawled on the wall behind Ruby. The wall also bears the remnants of a tomato that was thrown at Ruby. Ruby Bridges was one of countless victims of the racial prejudice and bigotry that persisted in the United States almost 100 years after the adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, collectively referred to as the “Civil Rights Amendments.”
Ruby Bridges on her way to school in November, 1960.
The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, overrode the Dred Scott v. Sanford (60 U.S. 393 (1857)) decision, by stipulating that “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States…are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” In addition, this amendment prohibited the states from denying any person “equal protection of the laws” or “due process of law.” The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, forbade states from denying any male citizen the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” All three of the “Civil Rights Amendments” included an enabling clause granting Congress the power to pass legislation to enforce them. In spite of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, often collectively referred to as the Civil Rights Amendments, the majority of the United States remained racially segregated. African Americans faced persistent and pervasive discrimination in almost all areas of their lives.
In 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537 (1896)), the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Louisiana’s Separate [Railroad] Car Act, which required passengers to ride in railroad cars designated for their race. The Court held that the segregated facilities did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, so long as equal facilities were provided to the different races. Issues relating to the equality of facilities were deemed to be a matter of state law. The Supreme Court's decision in Plessy produced the worst possible scenario for African Americans: it permitted racial segregation by state legislation and left them with only the state courts, with white judges and white juries, in which to seek redress for "unequal" treatment. An epidemic of de jure apartheid infected the United States in the wake of the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling. The segregation of public facilities increased throughout the South to include not only all forms of public transportation and their depots and educational institutions at all levels, but, also, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, restrooms, drinking fountains, and even cemeteries. In the North and West, segregation was de facto. Entire urban neighborhoods and suburban communities, civic organizations and clubs, and public and private schools and universities were "restricted" to whites. Devious combinations of literacy tests, poll taxes, and "grandfather" exemptions disenfranchised African Americans, and unpunished lynchings and other racial "hate" crimes proliferated.
In response, African Americans and their supporters united to oppose racial discrimination. In 1919, they founded the National Association of Colored People (NAACP). Under the auspices of the NAACP, civil rights attorneys launched a protracted legal battle to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1954, NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, who would become the Supreme Court's first African American justice, finally succeeded in persuading the Supreme Court that, unlike a separate railway car, a separate public education never could be made equal. Although the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (247 U.S. 483 (1954)), did not explicitly overturn Plessy, it irreparably undercut the legitimacy of all "separate but equal" legislation.
Prior to the decision in Brown, racial segregation in public schools was required by 17 states and permitted in all but 16 of the others. The Court declared that state laws establishing separate, segregated public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because, with respect to educational institutions, “separate” was “inherently unequal.” The Supreme Court did not specify how and when the states should go about desegregating their public schools. The following year, the Court addressed this issue in Brown v. Board of Education (II) (349 U.S. 294 (1955)), holding that states must desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed;” however, southern states did not comply.
In 1957, three years before Ruby Bridges braved racial intolerance to attend a previously all-white elementary school, in Little Rock, Arkansas, the first nine African American students, who became known as the Little Rock 9, were permitted to enroll in the previously all white Little Rock Central High School. Arkansas’s governor deployed the state’s National Guard to prevent the Little Rock 9 from entering Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforce the Court-ordered integration and to protect the Little Rock 9. He subsequently federalized the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the governor from ordering them to block integration. Even with federal protection, the Little Rock 9 were subjected to physical and emotional abuse by the other students at Little Rock Central High School.
The Little Rock 9 in 1957.
The beginning of the desegregation of public schools was one part of a growing Civil Rights Movement that was taking hold in the United States. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the “colored section” on the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus for a white passenger. Her arrest led to the “Montgomery Bus Boycott,” during which 40,000 African Americans, who made up 75% of Montgomery Bus ridership, refused to ride buses in Montgomery, Alabama until Montgomery buses were integrated. African American leaders arranged carpools and reduced taxi fares for those boycotting the buses. The boycott lasted from December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956, when the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision that racially segregated bus seating violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
A police officer fingerprints Rosa Parks after her arrest in Montgomery.
In 1960, four African-American North Carolina A&T State University Students were denied service at a “whites only” lunch counter in a “five-and-dime” in Greensboro, North Carolina and asked to leave the premises. They refused to do so, their bravery led to similar sit-ins in fifty-four cities across nine states.
The Greensboro Lunch Counter is now on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
In response to boycotts, sit-ins, and other forms of passive resistance to segregation and the violent retaliation that they generated, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited segregation of all public accommodations, including railway cars. The following year, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. This statute prohibits efforts to disenfranchise voters based on their race. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been amended by Congress five times to expand its purview.
In 1999, President Clinton conferred a Congressional Gold Medal on each member of the Little Rock 9.
President Clinton conferring the Congressional Gold Medals.
Ruby Bridges was awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Medal by President Clinton in 2001. She now gives inspirational speeches about her childhood.