In September 1957, an Arkansas press photographer captured one of century’s iconic images as a young black girl tried to enter a newly desegrated school. Will Counts was waiting near the north side of Central High School as Elizabeth Eckford sought unsuccessfully, to walk past National Guardsmen posted around the premises to deny her entry. At the time, the Supreme Court’s landmark decision (Brown v The Board of Education) to integrate the country’s schools was still relatively young and Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas, was determined not to see the new directive implemented.
As Eckford walked towards the school, elegantly attired in a home-made white cotton dress and sunglasses, a white mob followed, yelling threats and racial epithets. Counts took the photograph that would define his career as Hazel Bryan, a 15-year-old white girl standing in the background screamed passionately at a remarkably composed Eckford. The words she was shouting were: “Go back to Africa!”
Thirty years before Eckford’s ordeal, the town of Little Rock had witnessed a horrific lynching. A white mob seized John Carter, a 35-year-old black man accused of assaulting a white woman and her daughter. Carter, a married man and father of five, was hanged from a telephone pole and shot with scores of bullets. His corpse was tied to the back of a car and dragged around for an hour. Then it was burned on the trolley tracks in the middle of a black neighbourhood.
Counts’ photograph caught the passions at stake in the civil rights movement, unforgettably. The images reportedly moved President Eisenhower so much that they convinced him to tip the scales in the standoff over desegregation. Soon the National Guard were on the other side of the equation, helping to uphold the new law of the land. Black students in the South still faced constant threats, humiliation and occasional violence, but the institutional elements of Southern racism were crumbling. Six years later, Alabama governor George C Wallace quixotically barred the doorway to the Foster Auditorium at Alabama University — but quietly agreed to be removed peacefully providing this could be done in front of network television cameras.
Decades later the white girl screaming in the photograph tracked down Eckford, apologized, and the pair made a series of well-publicized media reconciliations. New images of the two middle-aged friends were stage-managed to embody the dawning of a post-racial America, but many observers remained sceptical, concerned that the whole episode was too contrived and opportunistic. (The friendship did not last and today the women do not talk to each other.)
Two days ago, several hundred people marched at the University of Alabama to condemn segregation among college fraternities and sororities. After reports in a student newspaper indicated that a black student had been turned down by an all-white sorority, hundreds of well-known alumni signed an open letter denouncing racism and students convened a march that revisited the scene of Governor Wallace’s famous public defiance, holding a sign that promised “The Final Stand in the School House Door.” Judy Bonner, the university’s first female president stated that “While we will not tell any group who they must pledge, the University of Alabama will not tolerate discrimination of any kind.”
Anyone familiar with the intensity, and the rancour, of the debate over race in American culture will likely view these gestures with a mixture of admiration and concern. Like Eckford’s walk, public gestures are important when a society decides to confront its deepest prejudices, and to move beyond a difficult past. But progress is always more complex than we would like to believe. Racism never simply disappears, and it is wishful thinking to behave as though it does.
Twenty years ago the conservative professor Alan Bloom noticed that his Ivy League students were voluntarily re-segregating themselves at his campus. It is hardly surprising, then, to find most of the so-called Greek-letter societies at a Southern university similarly inclined. What has changed is the American sensitivity to the question of race. Shelby Steele, a prominent contrarian commentator on these matters has written that between the Eisenhower and the Clinton years, “the moral relativism of one era [became] the puritanism of the other. Race simply replaced sex as the primary focus of America’s moral seriousness.”
During the Obama years the question of race has become no less problematic. The White House’s awkward attempt to reconcile Professor Henry Louis Gates with the policeman who arrested him outside his own house was indicative of its uncertainty in this area. Occasionally the president himself has spoken directly about the problems of racism — most recently in his remarks on the outcome of the trial of George Zimmerman. But, taken as a whole it is hard to disagree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that Obama’s career has “demonstrated integration’s great limitation — that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black. And even then, full acceptance is still withheld.”
This, surely, is the elephant in the room in Alabama and elsewhere. Re-segregation repeatedly occurs in America’s nominally post-racial institutions because there is still a noticeable lack of social cohesion among the groups that are trying to reconcile. Like Eckford and Bryan, a long and difficult history cannot be overcome in a few photo opportunities. Even so, the determination of hundreds of students and faculty members to take a stand against racism in one of its former bastions is very moving, and their willingness to talk openly about the situation is a heartening reminder that the moral seriousness that drove the civil rights movement sixty years ago has not yet faded from American life.