One of the most enduring images of the Civil Rights Movement is of Elizabeth Eckford. She is being harassed and taunted by a group of white students, parents, and police on her way to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. On that morning Eckford missed connecting with the eight other African American students of the Little Rock Nine and their NAACP leader, Daisy Bates. Eckford was alone when the angry crowd surrounded and confronted her.
The photo is now iconic. Eckford’s dignity, strength, and self-possession are stunning counterpoint to the contorted, hate-filled faces of those following her.
This image of Eckford kept returning to me as I watched the Senate confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor. Although Sotomayor herself deplores metaphor and analogy, Eckford’s harassment seemed an apt comparison to the hearings. Although her confirmation was nearly certain, Republican senators were determined to make Sotomayor walk a gauntlet on her way to the Supreme Court.
After Anita Hill’s testimony, Clarence Thomas famously called his confirmation hearings a “high-tech lynching.” Yes, he was a powerful black man subjected to white interrogation about sex, but it was a terrible analogy because no group of white men has ever formed a posse to lynch a black man in defense of a sexually degraded black woman. The lynching imagery was powerful nonetheless and Thomas forcefully deployed it against the senators. It framed a particular, historic understanding of black men’s vulnerability within white-dominated systems of power. Women of color have fewer metaphors available to contextualize their degradation and dehumanization. For me the Sotomayor hearings were an Elizabeth Eckford moment.
Like Eckford, Sotomayor has been praised for her dignity, her stillness, and the evenness of her voice as she responded to hostile mischaracterizations. She managed to laugh off sexist jokes. She didn’t flinch when she was repeatedly interrupted. Senator Lindsey Graham warned that her confirmation could only be derailed if she had “a complete meltdown.” The rules of the game were set: the Senators could mischaracterize her record, accuse her of racial bias, and mispronounce her name but she could not respond in kind. She could not be hurt or offended or angry. She had to remain a pillar of rationality and neutrality and control.