Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock - David Margolick

The names Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery may not be well known, but the image of them from September 1957 surely is. This famous photograph captures the full anguish of desegregation, and is an epic moment in the civil rights movement. This text tells the story of two separate lives unexpectedly braided together.







Margolick's book is sort of a dual bio looking at the two main women from one of the most famous photographs taken during the Civil Rights Movement era. How that photo came to be and what happened to the two women later in life. The truth might surprise you. 


The story opens around summer 1956 through start of school year 1957. Elizabeth Eckford was a shy, bookish African-American teenager (15 at the time of the photo) from a working-class family. Being self-conscious about her crooked teeth, she tended to keep to herself. She struggled with being a little socially awkward but secretly dreamed of being a lawyer. Following the seminal Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education, news broke that Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas was planning to integrate their previously all-white student body and was starting the selection process for black students. Elizabeth shocked everyone when she decided to put her name in the mix. Her reasoning went back to those law school dreams -- she knew lawyers had to be strong orators, and Central was said to have some of the best public speaking courses in the state for high school students. It also had a huge library, offering her more educational resources than her schooling so far had been able to provide.  As we know now, Elizabeth was one of 9 black students to be chosen, a group that came to be collectively known as The Little Rock Nine. 


Hazel Bryan, also fifteen when she first meets Elizabeth, grew up on a rural family farm, born to -- I hate to say it, but it's laid out pretty clear in this book -- incredibly racist parents. Hazel had the kind of personality that caused her to always seek the attention of others as well as be prone to theatrics. The day of the now famous photograph, September 4, 1957 started like a regular school day for both of them. Both got ready, dressed in their selected first-day-back outfits and set out. Just like any student might. But then history takes over. 


Elizabeth had a long memory for injustice: years after Coca-Cola had refused to give a small raise to its delivery men, nearly all black, who lugged around those heavy wooden crates, she still wouldn't drink the stuff. 


During that short walk from her home to school, Elizabeth is spotted by the crowds gathered to watch the arrival of the Little Rock Nine. Instantly she is surrounded by people throwing racial slurs and threats from every direction, one of those voices being Hazel, the photograph seen today being shot by numerous photographers from different angles, but the most famous and widely published being that of photojournalist Will Counts.






Elizabeth is so overcome by the ambush that she doesn't even make it into the school initially, instead pushing her way to a nearby bench where she collapses in tears. It's at this point when a white journalist sees her, sits next to her and puts his arm around her shoulders trying to calm and comfort her. The crowd sees this and immediately starts screaming for a lynching and for someone to cut the journalist's balls off for touching her. When interviewed later, the journalist is even asked if he thought he might have crossed an ethical line. For trying to comfort another human being in pain.  THIS IS IN 1957, Y'ALL!


So the initial attempt to integrate Central High turns out to be a pretty abysmal failure due to the students not being able to get past the racist mobs waiting at the doors. When the students finally do make it in and try to attend classes some weeks later, within 2 hours they have to be secretly evacuated out again in unmarked police cars! Daisy Bates, then leader of the Arkansas branch of the NAACP said she would not subject the children to that again unless the President of the United States himself provided some hardcore security. President Eisenhower responded by sending over the 101st Airborne. The Little Rock Nine are then escorted & guarded by 22 soldiers. But Eisenhower can't keep the soldiers there indefinitely so after awhile the 101st is pulled and the detail is given to the local National Guard, at the time being largely made up of bigoted whites who were never for the integration idea. You can imagine what this means for the Little Rock Nine. 


Elizabeth continues to attend classes at Central High but endures pushing, hitting, slurs, spitballs set on fire and shot at her, dead flies dropped in her lunch trays and glass shards scattered in her shower stall in P.E. class, just to name some of it. She also survives multiple instances of being shoved down flights of stairs. Whenever she feels ready to give up though, she reminds herself of the story of Jackie Robinson, finding enough strength in it to push through. {Margolick also includes stories of black youth of the era, younger than Elizabeth at the time, who heard her story and were inspired by her strength, driving them to become lawyers, senators, and activists.} Elizabeth's story even gets heard by famed musician Louis Armstrong, a man who normally appeared so happy and at ease, but was so riled by the injustices the Little Rock Nine had to face that he gives a very impassioned, f-bomb laden interview when asked his view on the situation. The public responded back with equal anger, surprisingly. People tried to boycott his shows, radios dropped his records from their playlists, and Ford Motors threatened to drop their sponsorship. Sammy Davis, Jr. said he was glad the interview was bringing more attention to the Civil Rights struggle but complained that Armstrong should have spoken up ten years sooner. 




Historical tidbits:

>> Interesting coincidence -- at the same time the Little Rock Nine was trying to integrate Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, there was a similar -- but less reported -- story going on in Charlotte, North Carolina with African-American student Dorothy Counts trying to get accepted into all-white Harry Harding High School. She endured harassment similar to that of Elizabeth Eckford.


>> Minnijean Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine, angered and driven mad with the abuse she received from white students, called one student "white trash". She was expelled. No disciplinary action was taken with her tormentors. 


>> During an interview in 1958 (celebrating his turning 90), W.E.B. DuBois gave props to the Little Rock Nine, praising their admirable courage in the face of such hate. 



After finishing their school years, Elizabeth and Hazel tried to put Central High behind them but neither ever entirely escaped the memories, especially not when that photo would resurface every year of their lives on the anniversary of the first integration attempt. Elizabeth was so traumatized by her experiences she was never able to make it to law school to pursue her dream. Instead she tried a brief career with the military but struggled too much with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. She took over her parents house after they passed, raising her own sons there, trying to make ends meet on the most meager of incomes. She still battled with depression stemming from those years at Central, depression that led to multiple suicide attempts over the course of her life. 


Hazel, a few years into young motherhood, found religion and reflected on her past mark on the history books. Feeling a change in her soul, not wanting her own children to grow up racist, Hazel took it upon herself to track down Elizabeth's number and apologize for any pain she caused all those years ago. With the dialogue opened, the conversations continued leading to a gradual (and unexpected) friendship between the two ladies. They found they shared interests in gardening and thrift-store shopping. They went on speaking tours together, hoping to show others that you can grow as people and become better than your past. They even attended a racial healing seminar together. Hazel also continued to earnestly educate herself, buying stacks of of books on black history.


Something I found disappointing to read was the treatment the ladies received from some typically well-respected figures -- Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey. After attending a poetry reading given by Angelou, the ladies went backstage to meet the poet, believing she would have an interest in the update to their story. As it turns out, they were snubbed. Maya Angelou didn't seem to have any idea who they were and didn't really seem to care, which shattered Hazel. Later, when asked onto the Oprah show in 1999 to tell their story, Elizabeth was taken aback at how Oprah seemed not to really believe that these two women could set aside their past and become friends. When both ladies insisted the friendship was real, Elizabeth was unsettled by Oprah's "yeah right, okaay" attitude, both Hazel & Elizabeth left feeling like their segment was abruptly cut off.


Hazel, despite her efforts, never shook the backlash of the photograph. Media sources always came back to that one moment, which to me illustrated how media can be a huge instigator in continually fueling the fires of racism. You have someone showing you that they're acknowledging their part in past wrongs and honestly trying to make amends for them (what else can you expect from a person?!) and it doesn't seem to make one bit of difference.


Over the years her fragile friendship with Elizabeth slowly started to crumble. Elizabeth seemed to get into dark moods where she was convinced Hazel was only after publicity again. The dark periods would lift, the friendship would strengthen for a time, until Elizabeth's moods would go dark yet again and she would point out things Hazel had said or done that Elizabeth found fault or suspicion in. Hazel eventually grew frustrated and tired with the back and forth and quietly stepped out of Elizabeth's life entirely, though she always gave the "door's always open to her" kind of answer when asked if the friendship could ever be mended. 


In the end, I came away learning a lot but am still not 100% sure what to make of the later friendship between Elizabeth & Hazel. I do feel like Hazel did her best to right the wrongs but at the same time I could understand Elizabeth's point of view in some of Hazel's actions looking a little suspect. Was there just TOO much hurt to entirely heal? Where the book ends (the way it's a bit of an open-ended question mark) gives the feeling that both women honestly cared for each other and mourned the friendship dropping off the way it did, yet both admitted they were open to reconnecting. Is it pain, stubborness, the fatigue of society's judgements that kept them apart? A mix of all? Hard to say, but the blessing is steps towards repairing a historical sin were made and the story doesn't close on continued hate but more of a "It's complicated."





Readers can listen to author David Margolick read an excerpt of this book here