In 1957, integration of schools in the United States was still an unreal concept, certainly unwelcome in the South, where the recent Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education, was less well known at that time than it is now, nearly 50 years later. But it would change the country, and many lives, by stating that “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional. Two lives that were changed completely were those of Elizabeth Eckford, an African-American teenager, and Hazel Bryan, a 15-year-old white girl, both residents of Little Rock, Arkansas.
"Margolick’s well-researched book will raise as many questions as it answers. It evokes sympathy for both women and takes a stab at understanding the complex issues involved in an event that was both historical and deeply human."
Elizabeth was chosen to be one of the “Little Rock Nine,” as they came to be called --- black students who would be the first to attend Little Rock’s large, stately, all-white Central High School. Even though they would be taught in special classes and be prevented from participating in almost all social programs at the school, it would give them a chance to improve their education, which was something Elizabeth really wanted. Inspired by Thurgood Marshall, one of the crafters of the Brown ruling, she was a very good student who wanted to be a lawyer someday.
Hazel was, by contrast, a kind of nobody, a loud-mouthed tough kid who loved attention. She was from “the wrong side of the tracks,” and she was defiant.
On September 4, 1957, Elizabeth led the queue of black students who attempted to walk into Central High. She was met by local guardsmen with orders not to let the youngsters pass and a mob of whites --- including ministers and other prominent townspeople --- yelling nasty epithets (and, in one case, spitting on Elizabeth). The loudest voice was that of Hazel, whose hate-constricted face as she stalked behind Elizabeth, contrasted with Elizabeth’s stolid march forward, was captured in a photograph that caught the world’s attention.
David Margolick has composed a book about that photograph: how it spread throughout the world and how its main characters were affected by it. It served as an inspiration to many blacks and, to many whites, became a symbol of the secret shame of Southern racism. For Hazel, who had to leave Central High and whose life became a testament to a rebuilding of character, it was as important a signpost as to Elizabeth, whose life after Central High gradually crumbled into depression and destitution. The remarkable saga includes a rapprochement between the two women. Hazel made the first move by calling Elizabeth and offering a simple apology, and little by little they became friends. How that relationship developed, and later dissipated, is a central theme of ELIZABETH AND HAZEL. It is not an altogether hopeful tale, seeming to underscore the racial divide that has so many subtle footprints, not just in Little Rock but everywhere. Maybe it would have been too much of a miracle if they had remained friends to the last.
Both women are still alive. Hazel became an activist who spearheaded a Teen Outreach program and promoted multicultural values at home and in her community. Elizabeth, after years of depression and failure, was taken under the wing of that same community, got work as a probation officer, and regained some national recognition as times changed around her. But the photo remained, depicting the humble stalwart black girl and the hate-filled white, perhaps for both of them a permanent barrier to reconciliation on a personal level.
Margolick’s well-researched book will raise as many questions as it answers. It evokes sympathy for both women and takes a stab at understanding the complex issues involved in an event that was both historical and deeply human, in which two girls played out their roles, unable to imagine the long-term and widespread outcomes of their actions.