FORT LAUDERDALE — Many people may be unaware that legendary illustrator Norman Rockwell was a civil rights activist.
Though he never marched with placards or gave a persuasive speech, Rockwell was indeed moved by African Americans’ struggle for equal rights and social justice. The evidence is in some of his art work now on display at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.
To mark Black History Month, the museum on Tuesday hosted a spirited panel discussion of some of Rockwell’s paintings that epitomize the Civil Rights Movement.
“It took enormous courage to paint and depict some of the things he did. Looking at his paintings have made me think how far we have come and how much farther we have to go,” said Chetachi Egwu, a communications professor at Nova Southeastern University (NSU).
The forum, “Norman Rockwell: Children, Race Relations and the Civil Rights Movement” led by Egwu and three other distinguished professors from NSU, focused on Rockwell’s Boy in Dining Car (1947), The Problem We All Live With (1964), Golden Rule (1961), Murder in Mississippi (1965), and New Kids in the Neighborhood (1967).
The 1960s brought about many social changes, not just for Rockwell, but also for the entire United States.
Having painted idealist images for most of his career at The Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell later started to shift his work from, “I paint life as I would like it to be” to a more unpopular view of the mounting challenges in the nation.
Rockwell began his discourse with The Problem We Live With, a portrayal of Ruby Bridges, the first black girl to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans. A year later, he continued with works such as Murder in Mississippi, which embodied the gruesome murder of white civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. Later, he painted New Kids in the Neighborhood, a symbolization of racial integration as three white children face two black children whose family is moving into the suburbs.
“Both these pictures are really the juxtaposition of what Rockwell was about, his idea of what is and what he hopes it to be. It’s the juxtaposition of imagery and reality. This is the reality of segregation. This is the attempt to break down the lines of segregation and integrate the South,” said NSU history professor Gary Gershman.
Rockwell’s earlier painting, the Golden Rule, a painstakingly detailed illustration of diversity and racial and ethnic unity, typifies the unrealistic perceptions seen in his earlier works.
“At first glance the painting seems to represent a very idealized version of society,’’ said Eileen Smith-Cavros, an NSU sociology professor. “Now we might look at it as a very optimistic view of the world’s people coming together. And it might seem to reflect naïveté and maybe unrealistic beliefs on Rockwell’s part. But this really wasn’t Rockwell’s vision of the real world in 1961, but rather the way he hoped it could and would be some day,”
Smith-Cavros continued: “The painting seems to point out that although everyone in the painting are very different on the outside in terms of the national costumes, different skin tones, different traditions as seen in the religious items, he really believed, when he spoke of this painting, that humans had more in common than not.”
The question remains as to whether race relations are closer to Rockwell’s harmonious image.
Pointing to several headlines making U.S. news in the last several months, including stories about hate crimes being on the rise, minorities soon to become the majority population, tightening border control, minorities being hardest hit by the recession, and Barack Obama becoming the first African-American president, Smith-Cavros said, “Rockwell’s vision is both tangible and also extremely elusive in our present era.”
She continued: “I found tolerance and hate headlines as you undoubtedly would have in 1961; it’s all there. Forty-nine years after he painted Golden Rule, I’m still not sure if we are any closer to Rockwell’s visualization. I’ll let you decide that.”
Photo: Norman Rockwell wanted to illustrate how the Golden Rule, above, was a common theme of all the major religions of the world, and depicted people of every race, creed and color with dignity and respect. The mosaic contains the inscription "Do unto Others as You Would Have Them Do unto You." It was executed by Venetian artists specializing in mosaic works.
IF YOU GO
What: “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell” exhibit
When: Now through Feb. 7, 2010.
Where: Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, 1 East Las Olas Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale.
Contact: To learn more, call 954-525-5500 or visit moafl.org.