Too Much Information   /   Spring 2015   /    Essays

A Politics Without Politics: The Iconoclastic Turn in American Public Life

Ned O’Gorman

The dress was a tapestry in black and white. Prepared and pressed for a fifteen-year-old girl who was about to walk into history—and into great danger—it hung squarely on the shoulders of Elizabeth Eckford as she headed to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was her first day of school, September 4, 1957. The dress had been made especially for the day, pressed that morning while images on the Eckford family’s television showed angry crowds gathering outside Central High. The dress, like the crowds, was intended to communicate. The checked pattern of the lower part of the skirt was like the American republic in and for which Eckford stood, black and white. The skirt’s wide border flowed outward, reaching toward the bystanders, bodyguards, belligerents, and photographers who surrounded her—as if to remind them that the threads of history, when woven together, create patterns that define our civic spaces. The many images of Eckford that day—published in newspapers and magazines and shown on television—communicated a similar message throughout the Republic and indeed the world, causing some to feel outrage, others resentment, others perplexity, and others even a curious indifference.

For President Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, the images caused alarm, giving ample indication of the mob violence that would ensue that month. Eisenhower, who was quietly watching from quarters at the Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island, where he was vacationing, had been in one scholar’s characterization “profoundly ambivalent” about the 1954 Supreme Court decision that led to integration efforts in Arkansas and elsewhere.1 He had stated that he preferred an “evolutionary” approach, one that would avoid the need for any coercive measures on the part of the federal government with respect to race relations.2 In fact, in a July 1957 news conference, only two months before Eckford donned her checked dress, he had insisted in public, “I can’t imagine any set of circumstances that would ever induce me to send Federal troops into a Federal court and into any area to enforce the orders of a Federal court, because I believe that [the] common sense of America will never require it.”3 American common sense having faltered, Eisenhower issued an authorization to the secretary of defense on September 24, 1957, to use “the armed forces of the United States as he may deem necessary” to put down the willful “obstruction of justice.”4 And so uniformed troops with helmets and rifles appeared in Little Rock in the middle of a Cold War in which Eisenhower was bent on subordinating American martial iconography to images of peace and prosperity.

It was an extraordinary measure, one—as Eisenhower explained in a televised address the evening of September 24—that had everything to do with repairing, in his words, “the image of America.” Little Rock was doing a “tremendous disservice…to the nation in the eyes of the world,” the president declared. It was, he continued, “difficult to exaggerate the harm that is being done to the prestige and influence, and indeed to the safety, of our nation and the world.”5 In the black-and-white images of racial hatred coming out of Little Rock, we were witnessing, Eisenhower suggested, an American crisis of global proportions, as all crises of the “image of America” in the Cold War would be.

Of course, Eisenhower was right to see in the images of violence against Elizabeth Eckford and other activists a challenge to the image of America. He was wrong, however, to suggest that these images “misrepresent[ed]” America.6 The pictures Eisenhower and countless others saw have been called “image events”: spectacles meant for public consumption and political deliberation.7 But they were image events emerging out of years of hard struggle for advocates of civil rights, When Elizabeth Eckford put on that dress, she offered it, and indeed herself, as a kind of image of America. Reflecting on its significance, political philosopher Danielle Allen has written:

The dress reports on the gap between ideals and actualities, and also on the importance of symbols to the efforts of democratic citizens to deal with that gap. Although her fellow citizens across the country did not, Elizabeth knew that the integration of the public school system would require a made-from-scratch reweaving of the relationships among citizens. When she made the dress, she expressed the autonomy of the democratic citizen who desires to be sovereign and to effect new political orders but also must confess her own disempowerment. She had at her disposal the means to reconstitute not the “fabric” of society but only her daily uniform, and hers alone.8

Before we romanticize this moment of democratic self-fashioning, it must be said that the spitting, the shouting, the slurs and shoving—all frozen in the chemistry of film—were also expressions of citizens seeking to effect, or at least protect, a social and political order. These were also images of America, a black-and-white tapestry woven in discordant threads. The result was a crisis that, as Hannah Arendt suggested in her essay “Reflections on Little Rock,” challenged the legitimacy of the entire “political and historical framework of the Republic.”9

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