Monday, January 18, 2010
Sunday, January 10, 2010
"We must come to see that the society we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience."[i]
The 170 images in the current Skirball exhibit, Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956–1968 range from images I had never seen before, like the discovery of the bodies of the Mississippi three -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, one black and two white voting rights volunteers murdered by the KKK, to quintessential images of MLK in Washington, DC and the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Bruce Davidson, who I had always associated with a gritty, subway-riding New York gang culture, was there when Viola Liuzzo's car was discovered on the side of US-80 and made a riveting image of her blood-stained seat and discarded shoes.[ii] It's the James 'Spider' Martin image, also in the exhibition, of the standoff at the base of the Edmund Pettis Bridge between marchers led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis in suits and overcoats on one side and troopers in riot gear on the other that has repeatedly reinforced my long-held position on the road's significance as a critical public space ripe for the contestation of civil rights. That moment before the countdown began, before its premature abandonment that resulted in the chasing and beatings now known as Bloody Sunday, seems almost civil.[iii]
These images undoubtedly bear the burden of documentation. Some, particularly those with visible historical notations typed or handwritten across the top or bottom of the image, are more journalistic than artistic, yet are nonetheless driven by the infinite, if nearly immediate, decision-making of the creative eye and mind. I had seen an image before of the first day of desegregation at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. We visited the site on the second Mobile Studio trip where the long sidewalk and imposing steps seem more powerful reminders of the risky distance between segregation and equality than the immobilized commemorative statues of the Little Rock Nine. The picture in Road to Freedom, though, is from a different angle. In the more famous version, Will Counts' image, where the photographer stands to Elizabeth Eckford's right (she's the first of the nine black teens to arrive for class), there is a semi-circle of space between her and the aggressive resistors. Beyond that spatial cushion she is visually connected, almost along a line from waistband to waistband of their slightly cinched dresses, to the vitriolic Hazel Bryan, directly behind Elizabeth, sneering, yelling, virtually spewing racist hatred. In the image in the exhibition taken from Elizabeth's other side, Hazel's mouth is wide open, almost as if she could be singing, and the right arm of the girl behind Eckford is swinging just a bit forward, with a look of determination, as if, perhaps, she's trying to catch up. There is no more than a centimeter in the image between the sunny white arm of that woman and Eckford's smooth black left arm, holding a single notebook, connected to an upright silent body, looking composed, proud, and stylish in comparison.
What if, I thought while standing there, that ring of women in the new image, instead of hurling venomous hatred at an innocent and brave teenager in many ways their peer, were actually stepping forward, grabbing Elizabeth Eckford's arm, and then walking her into her first day at Little Rock Central High School. What if Hazel Bryan, Mary Ann Burleson (carrying a purse to Hazel's left) and Sammie Dean Parker (wearing the dark dress to Hazel's right) had decided that day to be proactive agents of change, leaders in a call to civil action, role models for their peers. I thought this knowing little about those three girls other than feeling the embarrassment of their harassment. Sammie Dean, it turns out, was "one of the ringleaders of the segregationist students" while Mary Ann was "largely along for the ride." In Counts' image, the one that flooded newspapers and archives, Sammie Dean has turned back towards the crowd, thereby granting herself a kind of anonymity and invisibility, and Mary Ann looks forward rather blankly. It is Hazel who stands as a symbol of hatred, anger, and bitterness. Will Counts' image -- quite accurate of the day -- shows a hopeless division between black and white, a segregationist moat bridged only by the acerbic language stabbing Elizabeth Eckford in the back again and again and again like the shove of an unrelenting hand. The other image opens the door to a new possibility, an alternative action, a road that in the end was untaken.
Searching for these images on line I came across a Vanity Fair article that traces the fascinating fifty year history of these inextricably linked protagonists. Hazel Bryan, many years later, tracked down Elizabeth Eckford to apologize for her actions on September 4th, 1957. Both had struggled over the years with the way that single image had defined them -- as individuals and as symbols. In some ways, Eckford felt used by the civil rights movement and spent years dealing with depression. Her high school experience had been an abusive test of endurance, isolated from potentially supportive peers and hiding the extent of the abuse from her mother for fear she would be forced to give up her role in the fight for integration. For years Hazel and Elizabeth became friends. Though trying to make amends, Hazel was also condemned for that image and the role she played in perpetuating the racist stereotypes of the south. It was President Clinton's reference to the inspiration the Little Rock Nine had provided him that encouraged Eckford to begin speaking to school groups about desegregation and equality and when Clinton awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal, both Hazel and Elizabeth were in attendance. By then, though, their friendship had waned, each beginning to accuse the other of various falsities and disingenuousness.
The cover of Will Counts’ book on the Little Rock Central High desegregation is this image of Hazel and Elizabeth from that first day of school in 1957. Its title -- A Life is More Than a Moment. Though that is certainly true, we each have moments that define us and we hope those moments are representative of who we choose to be, what we choose to make of ourselves and our world, and how we choose to be influential. It is unfortunate to be caught at our worst and often a long battle to combat those errant moments. Like that first tattoo, we are often scared that if we commit to something permanent and risky, we may regret it later. I seem to have that fear with my dissertation topic. Is it big enough, bold enough, important enough? I know I am not Hazel in a vitriolic state, but I don't want to be anyone at all in that crowd, trapped behind the moat of even a hint of indifference. We may not be defined by a single moment, but we have only so many moments at our disposal, moments where we can choose action over inaction, right over complacency, and risk over comfort. Yet we are also pawns in the photographer's game, where one image may show us in light, another may show us in shadow, and the best we can do is be poised and ready.
Any exhibit, any single photograph, that can stir such grand emotions is worth a short trip and even a small exhibition price. Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956–1968 runs through March 7, 2010 at the Skirball. More information can be found at their website.
[i] The museum was closing, it was nearly 5:00, so I typed this quote quickly into my phone as the guards checked their watches. I missed recording the credit, but I'm pretty sure it was Martin Luther King Jr.
[ii] Viola Liuzzo was shot by four men driving alongside her as she and another volunteer, a young African-American man named Leroy Moton, were shuttling marchers back to Selma after the completion of the march to Montgomery. One of the men in the vehicle that shot her was an undercover FBI agent.
[iii] The marchers were given a two minute warning by the troopers to abandon their march and disassemble. Roughly a minute and a half into the warning, the troopers began chasing, beating, and spraying the marchers with tear gas.