I’m assuming most of you probably recognize this image—it’s in just about every American history textbook there is. But I’m also assuming most of you don’t know the story behind it. Will Counts took this photograph on September 4, 1957 as a fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford was trying to enter Little Rock Central High School. Eckford was one of a group of students, now referred to as the Little Rock Nine, who were registered by the NAACP to attend Little Rock Central after the Brown v. Board of Education decision had been declared. But even though she was registered to attend school, getting in was not quite as easy. Eckford was blockaded from the school by hundreds of angry protestors threatening to lynch and assault members of the Little Rock Nine. After the scene, a reporter found Eckford sitting on a bench, crying her eyes out over the events that had taken place. Even after President Eisenhower sent U.S. army troops to protect the students, the cruelty only continued as incidents of violence continued to occur.
As touching and emotional as this story is though, it is clearly not necessary to know the whole turn of events to be emotionally impacted by the photograph. Even more so, the viewer most likely will instantly side with Eckford without knowing anything about her story. Why is this picture able to rally people so effectively towards the desegregation movement? It is because Eckford acts as a metonymy in this photograph—she alone is able to represent all the African American students in the south attempting to go to “white” high schools. Will Counts’ photograph of Elizabeth Eckford is able to use its power as an individuated aggregate to evoke a strong emotional response in its viewers, leading them to change their views of desegregation in the South.
At first viewing, the emotion of the image is readily apparent. In fact, a powerful juxtaposition between the appearance of Eckford and her onlookers exists. The woman behind Eckford is livid with emotion, screaming (what are presumably expletives) at Eckford. The look of hate and disgust on her face is matched by many of the other white onlookers. Eckford, on the other hand, wears a stoic look of strength on her face—a look of a girl more mature than your average 15-year-old. The union of these two opposites causes the viewer to pity Eckford and the unnecessary struggles she is facing at such a young age. The fact that she carriers a folder in one hand also heightens our emotional response. The folder acts as a semiotic transcription of school, reminding us what’s actually taking place in the photograph: Eckford is simply trying to get an education, but isn’t able to because of all the angry protestors.
When this photograph was taken in 1957, racism was common thread throughout the South, and much of America as a whole. But this photograph, along with many other images of the civil rights movement, was able to start to change this sentiment. There were many Americans who didn’t agree with the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the idea of desegregation, but many of them probably still felt pity for Eckford. And this pity acted as a catalyst for social change. To the Americans sitting on the fence between segregation and desegregation, this photo helped them realize that African Americans are just trying to get an equal education, and that it is was many white people in the South that were actually full of hate and were acting illogical. I mean, I doubt most Americans would see this photo and feel any ill will towards Eckford, especially not to the level that the angry onlookers do. Even though racism still can be found in the United States today, this photograph helped the average white American to see the struggles of African American citizens in the middle of the 20th century, and pushed them to change their own views as well as the views of their fellow Americans.