COMPLETELY COINCIDENTALLY, in the last couple of months, I’ve read two books that use the quiet power of photographs to explore the lingering legacy of racism in the United States.
Both are well-reported and affecting but very different takes on deeply rutted and painful territory. Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy by Paul Hendrickson came to me as a suggestion from a new friend, the other, just out earlier this month, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick, arrived over the transom and, as it turns out, I’m reviewing for the Los Angeles Times.
Both books allow the reader walk backward into time — the Jim Crow South — vis-a-vis the “door” of the photograph. Each photograph focuses closely in on a charged, visceral moment in the history of desegregation in this county: Sons of Mississippi, the integration of the University of Mississippi at Oxford 1n 1962, by James Meredith; Elizabeth and Hazel the integration of Little Rock Central High School, 1957, by the Little Rock Nine. It would be Elizabeth Eckford who would become the “face” of the “Nine” though hers was obscured by black shades. (The Mississippi photograph was made by Charles Moore; Little Rock by Will Counts).
In retrospect, what struck me about both photographs, particularly after finishing the Margolick book, was just how powerful these images still are more than 50 years gone. I feel them in my gut. In these frames, what’s communicated, can’t be expressed in words, not quite in the same way.
Both writers talk about the spell that each photograph cast on the public. In Hendrickson’s case, the study is more personal. He happens upon a photo in a Berkeley bookstore decades after it was made. The image focuses on a ring of chuckling Mississippi sheriffs, one with a raised billy club, his jaw clenched, whose face says it all, “Dare ya.” And while the book attempts to locate those men, their ghosts and/or their progeny, Hendrickson is also looking for something more, beyond the frame of the photo. It’s journey that takes him back to the husks of old courtrooms and general stores, rummaging through yellowed files, as well as posing questions of elderly men and women in humid sitting rooms, but also into his own soul and heart.
For Margolick, the photo is a way to look at the power of images as tool for exposing some deeply embedded wrong in a blunt, unequivocal manner. This, “decisive moment,” as photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke about, was just that: It was an impetus. It shocked the world, ultimately shamed a country into change. Fifteen year-old Hazel Bryant (later Masserey), the contorted mask of fury, shouting epithets behind Eckford as she made her way to school, became a symbol too — of so much of the country’s frenzy, fury and ignorance — which is what Margolick’s book so eloquently explores. The photo connected the two women in a “tiny universe” as Margolick writes. In a random, fraction of a second, they’d be connected for the rest of their lives — a metaphor for a public discussion whose language shifts and playing field tilts. In the frame and universe of the photo, however, the sentiments and deeds, speak for themselves.
Below, footage of Elizabeth Eckford walking alone.