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Norman Rockwell painting "The Problem We All Live With"

Ruby Bridges, the girl from the painting, preaches harmony in Oakland

on September 13, 2011

Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With” portrays six-year-old Ruby Bridges in a clean white dress, carrying school supplies while guarded front and rear by US Marshals. Now, at 59, she is still meek in presence, but the passion in her voice Sunday morning captured the ear of every listener.

“At the end of our time, there is not going to be a white heaven and a black heaven,” Ruby Bridges-Hall told a full house from the pulpit of North Oakland’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church. “There is only going to be one place.”

Bridges-Hall was six years old when she started first grade at the William Frantz Elementary School; two years earlier, she and her parents had moved from Mississippi to New Orleans. She was the first African American to integrate the New Orleans public school system. She recently visited Oakland to attend the “Remember Them” unveiling, in which Bridges-Hall is one of 25 Humanitarians depicted in the massive four-piece bronze sculpture downtown. The figure of Ruby, at six, is located on one end of the sculpture, right next to former poet laureate Maya Angelou.

Bridges-Hall still lives in New Orleans, but she had come to Oakland for the unveiling as well as to make other appearances throughout the city. She visited Alameda, where there’s a school named after her – The Ruby Bridges Elementary School – and for a September 11th windup to her celebratory week, she spoke from the pulpit during the 8am service in church.

“Children do what they are taught,” Bridges said, remembering the way a child refused to play with her after the child’s mother had called Ruby a “nigger.”

“I know if my mother had told me not to play with someone or not to speak to someone, I wouldn’t do it.”

Bridges-Hall also spoke of her recent visit to the White House to meet President Obama and to see the famous painting, which depicts her historic moment, hanging on the wall outside the Oval office.

She had received presidential recognition before, she said — the Presidential Citizens Medal, awarded to her by former President Bill Clinton. But this White House visit was different, Bridges-Hall said.  “He is the first president of African descent, and I like to say that, because he is mixed race, and that is important,” said Bridges-Hall.

The church filled with applause as Bridges-Hall ended her speech. Attendees then filed to the back of the church for the book signing of Bridges’ book “Through My Eyes.”

Ruby Bridges signing book “Through My Eyes” at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Oakland.

“I so believe in bringing people together,” Bridges-Hall said. “It’s time that we understand that and practice that here. I do believe that is what the Lord intended for us to do.”

Lead image: This famous Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges, “The Problem We All Live With,” is currently on display at the White House. Photo courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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