The saga of Ruby Bridges, a brave 6-year-old who became the first African American student to integrate Louisiana schools in 1960, came to life Friday at the Crocker Art Museum's Family Kwanzaa Concert.
The multimedia performance, "Big Dreams, Small Shoulders," also revealed that Norman Rockwell – famous for painting cozy mainstream America – used his art to champion equal rights for all Americans.
His painting "The Problem We All Live With" depicts Ruby on her way to her first day of school at William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans in 1960.
The artwork, which shows the girl being escorted by federal marshals past a wall scarred by the N-word, appeared in Look magazine in 1964, the first of several paintings Rockwell did documenting the civil rights movement.
"The Problem We All Live With" is among 53 Rockwell paintings and 323 Saturday Evening Post covers on display at the Crocker through Feb. 3.
During his 47 years at the Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell was allowed to depict African Americans only as servants – the Post just wanted idealized images of white Americans celebrating Christmas and families, said Rika Nelson, the Crocker's manager of public programs.
But as the nation went through the upheaval of the civil rights movement, Rockwell quit the Saturday Evening Post and moved to Look in 1964 "to create illustrations that made a difference," said Crocker artist-in-residence Deborah Pittman.
Pittman went to Stockbridge, Mass., "to see Rockwell's art up close and personal and realized he became a social activist."
So Pittman, a former member of the Sacramento Symphony, created the multimedia show featuring a puppet of Ruby as well as spirituals, dancers, actors, a powerful version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" and a clip of Ruby going to school and another of her 50 years later visiting President Barack Obama at the White House.
In 1960, Rockwell had been moved by pictures of white children waving Confederate flags and both children and adults chanting "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate!" as Ruby walked into their school for the first time.
Rockwell painted "New Kids In the Neighborhood" in 1967, an image of African American kids integrating a white neighborhood in Illinois that ran with the Look article "The Negro in the Suburbs."
The Crocker exhibit also features Rockwell's 1965 painting "Murder in Mississippi," one of several powerful images he did honoring James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael "Mickey" Schwerner, the three civil rights workers murdered in June 1964 by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff's Office and the Philadelphia, Miss., Police Department.
In one image, he paints his own hand with his own blood.
Pittman said Rockwell used his brush to wake up America.
"There are so many people on both sides of the tracks who don't connect Norman Rockwell with anything other than smiling grandparents," said Pittman, who was deeply moved by his depiction of Ruby as a tiny, frail person in a white dress. "We hope that no one Ruby's age will ever have to carry the hopes and dreams of her people against the anger and bigotry of a nation."
Ruby Bridges didn't see the painting until she was 18. In 2011, Obama invited her to the White House, where it was hanging, and praised the efforts of black children courageous enough to integrate hostile schools.
"If it hadn't been for you guys, I probably wouldn't be here," Obama told her.
Bridges once commended Rockwell, who died in 1978, for having "enough courage to step up to the plate and say 'I'm going to make a statement,' and he did it in a very powerful way."
At Friday's Kwanzaa performance, Thomas Wyman, a seventh-grader at Katherine L. Albiani Middle School in Elk Grove, said that if it wasn't for kids like Ruby, "colored people probably wouldn't be here at the Crocker today. There would be a separate museum for colored people."
His grandmother, Thomasina Malory, said she helped integrate the white high school in Eustis, Fla. "We didn't really want to go to a white school, but we got art classes, which we didn't have, better business machines and a better education," Malory said.
The official premiere of "Big Dreams, Small Shoulders" will be at the Crocker at 3 p.m. Jan. 13.