Take one famous photo from the American civil rights movement for equality. Consider the familiar sentiment and lessons it relays today. Pictured is fifteen-year-old, African-American Elizabeth Eckford holding her binder, staring straight ahead as she walks alone. Closing in on her is a tight crowd of white people—people who appear to despise her.
It was September 1957 and Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas was set to be integrated. A time of monumental change for Americans. Three years earlier the highest court in the U.S. ruled that the racial segregation of school systems was unconstitutional. That paradigm shift in American society could not be overstated. Black students, by right, would learn the same curriculum, be in the same classrooms and share the same school facilities with white students. Which brings us back to that moment when Eckford tried unsuccessfully to attend her classes at Central High and was blocked by the National Guard. It was the day her fellow citizens surrounded her and the photographers were there to capture Little Rock’s defiance.
Sixty years later, I look at that photograph and seethe. I wonder: Who were these people screaming at Eckford? Where are they now and how do their families feel seeing them spew vitriol on a momentous day of change? Let’s face it, we already know the names of the Little Rock Nine. They endured the abuse, humiliation and assaults throughout that school year at Central High; not forgetting the post-traumatic stress disorders and depression in the years to follow. We recognize them as trailblazers. But who were these unapologetic, enraged protesters who, with their hate and defiance, go down in history?
My curiosity led me to articles. Sure enough they named names, including a 2011 radio interview with David Margolick, author of Elizabeth and Hazel: the Legacy of Little Rock. Remember Hazel Bryan, the short-haired brunette with the contorted mouth following Eckford; should she have been identified? What about (Mary) Ann Thompson, the blonde student on the left holding several books? Sure, over the years some of these passionate segregationists experienced a change in perspective, or simply hunkered down, as history turned and marched along a path different from the beaten one they once monopolized. Still, these same indignant people were immortalized on film circling a lone fifteen-year-old student. With their hurtful words, they helped make that day historic just by being wrong and strong.
Today there are so many more photographs and documentary films featuring similar civil rights showdowns. Let’s continue to identify for posterity the messages pushing for exclusion, hatred and violence. And yes, media should name their messengers but stop short of trying to explain them.
I believe when you leave your home to advocate in favour of denying a group of people the same rights you have, when you do it with hatred in your heart and saliva frothing in your mouth, when you do it despite knowing—but not accepting—that your country’s Constitution and its Bill, or Charter, of Rights do apply to every citizen, then you have clearly positioned yourself. The world will and should recognize you as being on the wrong side of history.