A friend of The Observer who works at the Arkansas Studies Institute just down the street from the Fortress of Employment sent us a link the other day to what we believe to be some of the most moving home video footage ever shot in the state: a soundless, 2-minute, 42-second clip that has been buried in its archives for a while now.
It's unknown who shot it, when or why. All that's known is that it came in as part of an anonymous donation of 8-millimeter home movies during a drive to collect such things a few years back. They do that at the ASI: collect stuff from attics and closets and flaking trunks, stuff that seems like junk, but which actually paints a picture of what it was like to live in Arkansas back in The Good Ol' Days (or The Bad Ol' Days, as the case may be).
This video — flickering, silent, flyspecked, black-and-white gone yellow with age — starts with a second of what seems to be a parade: men in the street, holding flags. Then there's a cut, and you see the grand facade of Central High School, students leaving at the end of a bright day, the boys in buzzcuts and crisp white shirts, the girls in cat eye glasses and full skirts — the late '50s, then — all of them walking in cliques and clumps and groups, as kids will. Then a group of girls splits, half left and half right, like the parting curtains of a stage. And there, walking in a sort of bubble, a kind of isolating force field into which no other boy or girl passes, are Elizabeth Eckford and Jefferson Thomas, two of Nine.
She is wearing a black skirt and white shirt. He is holding a book in his left hand. They walk side by side, both so young but different from the rest, upright, made of iron. The camera stalks them as they turn and head down the street. Kids chatting in huddles about the school day look up and track them with their eyes like dangerous things, like animals set loose from the zoo. One boy snaps his arms across his chest as they pass, as if he is shielding his heart at the sight of them. His companion bodily turns to stare. Everyone keeps their distance. The two of them are alone in the crowd.
A cut, and then they are walking in the street, a throng of people on the sidewalk pacing them, staring, the film silent, thank God, because you realize you don't really want to hear what was said on that day, by these children, to this boy and this girl. They walk past a finned Ford with a dent in the door.
A cut, and they're standing on the corner, the hungry camera circling them.
A cut, and a motorcycle policeman sits before them, astride his Harley.
A cut, and the camera lens peers between them, their heads close together, shrouded in gloom, looking across an intersection to where a crowd of white faces has gathered in the sun on the opposite corner, next to a police car, staring, staring, staring, staring.
A cut, and a yellow Plymouth taxicab approaches. The two of them climb inside. The car turns. The car motors away into the blessed future. Then fade to black.
And that is it, the whole video. The Observer can't seem to stop watching it, so profound in its simplicity: A boy and girl emerge from an American high school, walk to the corner, and wait on a taxi. So brief and moving, a snapshot from a world much like ours but better left in the past.
Watching it, we can't help but think about all those people: where they are and what they think of that moment, if they remember it at all. As one of The Observer's friends said when we posted the video to our page on Facebook: How many of those kids lied when their grandchildren came to them and asked whether they reached out in support and kindness? How many of them tried, retroactively, to leap across the gulf of their old shame to the right side of history?
The Observer, however, can't linger much on that in the face of such bravery. Instead, watching, we think: This is what courage looks like. This is what it looks like to do what's right when almost everybody else around you is wrong.
You can download the video from the ASI archives at http://tinyurl.com/k8jqqqv.