A Voice from the Technological Borderlands: David S. Bennett, civil rights and technology scholar
On September 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford approached Little Rock Arkansas’ Central High School in an attempt to enact desegregation. A wall of national guardsmen turned her away. None of this initial exchange was able to be recorded by the television camera operators, as their equipment was still being set up. And yet, today there exists footage of Eckford walking up to the National Guard soldiers and being turned away. This is because Elizabeth Eckford made the march on Central High School twice in the same day. As she was turned away the first time, she began to retreat from the guards, but midway through walking away she turned back around to attempt to cross the line of national guardsmen. This time, the television cameras were ready to record. CBS news reporter Robert Schakne shouted at the growing crowd to “Yell again!” as he saw Eckford approach the school again (Roberts and Klibanoff 160). The crowd followed suit, and this is the video footage that we have of the Little Rock attempt to desegregate. While it can never be known whether Schakne’s direction to the crowd had any distinct change on the unfolding of the event, which would be widely televised, this event brings to light many questions regarding the role video cameras play in the creation of historical narratives.
Civil rights struggles. Ethics violations. The borderlands between technology and culture. My name is David S. Bennett, and I am a second year doctoral student in Michigan State University’s History program. For the last five years I have dedicated myself to studying the way television influenced our understanding of the civil rights movement in the United States. Inspired by the work of journalist historians, such as Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, I try to decode the dual roles that cameras played in altering live events through direct observation and in transmitting those visuals to a large audience. In my mind, this interplay between the observing camera, the observed historical actors, and the viewing audience is intrinsic to understanding modern historical events.
This is why the Cultural Heritage Informatics fellowship is so important to my studies, because it gives me the opportunity to start this discussion about the role visual images have played in the development of American identity. While my current focus is on the reproduction of visual imagery, I have always been fascinated with the broader role technology plays within the development of social identity. I earned my BA in Philosophy with focuses on epistemology and ethics in 2005, and my MA in History in 2010 from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. My MA thesis, “Birth of a Virtual Battleground: Television and the Desegregation Crises of 1957 and 1960,” encapsulates these very issues and was nominated to represent my university at the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools’ 2010 Master’s Thesis Award in Social Sciences. My intention for my dissertation is to expand beyond the geographical and chronological narrowness of my thesis, to explain the relationship television had with the development of both northern and southern narratives of the civil rights movement.
After earning my Master’s degree, I moved to Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan in 2011 when my wife accepted a position with Lake Superior State University. I am the father of a beautiful two and a half year old little girl named Alice, who reminds me on a daily basis of how amazing human learning is. While most of my time is split between my studies and my family, I also love playing board games of all sorts, with local gaming communities, my family, and my friends.
The above video is a compilation of thirteen video clips that document just how extensively the moving image has changed over time. I believe that each sequence — from the victory celebrations of World War I and the dropping of the atomic bombs during World War II, to the video recordings of civil rights protests and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center — has played an intrinsic developmental role in forming our conception of who we are, both as individuals and as a nation.