Every once in a while, I have a nightmare about this picture.
My nightmare is not that I’m Elizabeth Eckford, the young Black woman walking into the Lion’s Den.
My nightmare is that I’m one of the angry White people screaming at her.
I look at the picture and I wonder about them. I don’t know their names or anything else, but I wonder: If I came from their world, would I have done the same thing? If I’d grown up hearing the story they were told, would my moral compass have kept me from doing this? And if it did, would I have spoken out?
I’ll never know for sure. I grew up in the South, but I was born a few years after this picture was taken. My school was integrated right before I entered first grade. There was still plenty of racism around, but in my college town there were also plenty of bright stars. I’m grateful for that.
What makes a person brave? What can explain the courage of Elizabeth Eckford? Or the people who stood up for her? The people not shown in the picture—what were they like?
I’ve been asking these questions for several years but I never thought they’d become quite as germane as they are today. I never dreamed we’d so easily slide back to scenes that aren’t that different from this picture.
How on Earth has that happened? And so fast?
Tomorrow is Election Day, but I’ve already voted. And unlike lots of people I know, I enjoyed voting this year. The reason is partly because of this picture. The Election, to me, was an opportunity to state for the record that I am not a racist. Those people in that picture—they are not me. Moreover, my country is still a country that welcomes immigrants. We still value ALL PEOPLE, male and female, White and Black and everything in between, Christians and Muslims and Atheists.
Voting against Donald Trump was my chance to say “Hell No!” to this picture. Voting required no great act of courage on my part—I didn’t have to risk my job or my life or my children’s well-being to do so.
I want to be brave, but I’m glad I don’t have to be.