Andrew L. Yarrow, a former New York Times reporter who teaches at George Mason University, is the author of “Look: How a Highly Influential Magazine Helped Define Mid-20th-Century America.”

At this time of year, Norman Rockwell is best remembered for his iconic 1943 painting “Freedom From Want,” depicting a smiling White family gathered around a Thanksgiving turkey. But it is less well known that he decisively turned a corner just a few decades later, choosing to reject the airbrushed image of a nation implicitly populated with only happy, White, middle-class families.

Racism still has not been vanquished decades after the civil rights movement — evidence ranges from the murder trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery to a system of mass incarceration that locks up 1 in 3 Black men at some point in their lives. Yet Rockwell’s story is instructive, showing how America could, and can, change its attitudes about race.

Rockwell did this by abandoning his employer of nearly 50 years, the Saturday Evening Post, in large part because the magazine would let him portray Blacks only in subservient positions. After including two Black children in his 1961 illustration “Golden Rule,” Rockwell began receiving hate mail from segregationists, and the Post told him he should paint portraits only of statesmen or celebrities. Those instructions clashed with his conscience. Severing his ties with the magazine in 1963, Rockwell told his longtime editors that he had “come to the conviction that the work I now want to do no longer fits into the Post scheme.”

He joined Look magazine, and it was there that he painted some of the hardest-hitting, most widely seen visual attacks on racism in the nation’s history.

Rockwell’s first illustration for Look, published in 1964, was titled “The Problem We All Live With.” It showed the torsos of four besuited U.S. marshals escorting a 6-year-old Black girl in a white dress, Ruby Bridges, to integrate an all-White school in New Orleans, with the word “n-----” scrawled above her.

Although Rockwell and Look received a torrent of angry letters, the magazine stood by him. When one approving reader wrote, “You have just said in one painting what people cannot say in a lifetime,” Rockwell wrote back: “I just had my 70th birthday and I am trying to be a bit more adult in my work.”

He followed this with a haunting 1965 painting to accompany an article titled “Southern Justice,” of three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi the summer before. The two-page sepia-toned image shows a White activist, about to be shot, holding the bloodied body of a Black man above the dead body of their White compatriot on a deserted road, with the shadows of the murderers on the right. Another 1967 painting showed Black and White children looking at each other, while an adult looked on disapprovingly, to illustrate a story on Black families moving into a White neighborhood.

Look shone a harsh light on racism and racial injustice from its earliest days in the late 1930s until it folded in 1971. Novelist Wallace Stegner, writing for Look in 1945, denounced the “insidious illness” of prejudice, segregation as “the shame of democracy,” and “the slimy propaganda shoveled out by demagogues.” A decade later, in a preface to a chilling interview with Emmett Till’s killers that shocked the nation, editorial director Dan Mich wrote: “In the long history of man’s inhumanity to man, racial conflict has produced some of the most horrible examples of brutality.”

Arguably, no magazine brought the evils of Jim Crow, segregation, the Klan and everyday white racism to the attention of more Americans than Look, which published article after article about race relations during the 1950s and 1960s, including pieces by Republican Sen. Edward Brooke explaining why “Black power is a response to white irresponsibility,” Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver calling for a “Yankee Doodle form of socialism,” Robert F. Kennedy asking “What if God is black?” and conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. arguing “why we need a black president.”

“For 47 years, I portrayed the best of all possible worlds — grandfathers, puppy dogs — things like that,” Rockwell said in a 1969 interview. "That kind of stuff is dead now, and I think it’s about time.”

Indeed, Rockwell — who in 1968 said he couldn’t have painted “Freedom From Want” or the rest of his “Four Freedoms” series in that decade, because “I just don’t believe in it” — had thrown in his lot with the tides of social change. And he brought many of Look’s readers along with him. As one wrote: “I have never been so deeply moved by any picture. Thank you for showing this white Southerner how ridiculous he looks. The truth is pretty hard to take until we get it from a Norman Rockwell.”

There is no reason to discard Rockwell’s happy Thanksgiving image, but there is every reason to pay more attention to his powerful paintings for Look. More than half a century later, it remains “about time” for America to confront the problem we all still live with.