Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick
When young and learning about desegregation in the South, for me, one photograph stood as the example of the deep southern racial divide. It portrays all the hatred of the Southern whites for the Blacks who were trying to get equal access to a good education. It is one of the most powerful images I’ve ever seen.
That image—a photograph of a white student at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas screaming obscenities at Elizabeth Eckford—one of the Little Rock Nine who were chosen to integrate Central High—has stood as the iconic image of racism for more than fifty years.
And for many years now, whenever I see the picture posted on display for a celebration of the Civil Rights Movement, I’ve wondered: Who is that screaming white girl? How did she have that much hate at that age? Times have changed and she must be an old woman now. What does she think today?
One thing always bothered me more than anything else. What the girl did was truly awful, but she just happened to be captured at what was probably the worse moment of her life and given out to the world as a demon-child. She was fifteen. What would it be like to become the face of racism, permanently, in every textbook and display for fifty years? What would it be like to have your entire life judged on something you did at fifteen?
Finally, Elizabeth and Hazel is the book with my answer. The girl is Hazel Bryan, and her story is told along with that of Elizabeth Eckford’s. The book gives the reader background to the date of the photograph (the Brown v. The Board of Education decision three years earlier, how the Little Rock Nine were chosen, etc.)
On September 4, 1957, the first day of the school year for Little Rock Central High and its first day of court-ordered desegregation, eight of the Little Rock Nine met and went to school together as a safety measure. Elizabeth didn’t get the message (her family had no phone) and, after being barred from entering the school by the National Guard, she had to walk a gauntlet of screaming whites to go back to a bus stop and wait to go home. (While she waited, people continued to harangue her. When a white woman who was a Communist tried to shame the crowd, people accused the Little Rock Nine of being in cahoots with the Communists.) During this walk, Will Counts, a young local reporter, snapped the iconic photo.
“When it comes down to it, Count’s famous photograph of Elizabeth is really more of Hazel Bryan; it is on Hazel that the eyes land, and linger. Despite the tricky lighting, her face is perfectly exposed: the early September sun shines on her like a spotlight. It hits her from the side, painting her face in a stark chiaroscuro that makes it look more demonic still. She’s caught mid-vowel, with her mouth gapingly, ferociously open. At that instant, and in perpetuity, Hazel Bryan, always the performer, has the stage completely to herself. Others played their own small parts in the picture, but ‘the mouth,’ she later said, ‘was mine.’”
Elizabeth is also an icon of the Civil Rights Movement because of her dignity in that frightening, lonely walk. She continued at Little Rock High for the year although a group of students was always slamming her into lockers, pushing her, spitting on her. However, Hazel was not one of those students. Her parents took her out of the school after seeing her in the newspaper photo. She never attended school with Elizabeth. In fact, Elizabeth didn’t like to look at the photo, and didn’t know about Hazel.
The photograph took on a life of its own. A white farmer paid to have it republished in a newspaper with the heading, “Study This Picture and Know Shame.” Some of the kids at Central High felt the same. They were all being judged for the bad behavior of a small group of vicious students. News men were interviewing them, trying to trip them up, the ASB president thought.
Hazel married and had children very young. Also young, she began to question her upbringing and her life. She did things that would have been considered very odd at the time. In pregnancy, she took Lamaze classes. She practiced yoga and learned to belly dance. But most important, she realized how bad her behavior was on September 4, 1957.
“When she was around twenty years old, Hazel found herself lying awake, thinking about Elizabeth, and about her won legacy. She wanted to be for her sons the role model on racial tolerance she’d never has herself. To put it more brutally, she didn’t want either of them to become the bigot she had been.”
She tracked down Elizabeth so that she could apologize. Afterward, she did a lot of volunteer work with underprivileged youth. She was “disfellowshipped” from her church for her rebellious attitudes. She didn’t fit in.
Elizabeth has had a difficult life although she has met presidents and received many awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal. She appears to have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome before it was recognized. Her mother was mentally ill as was her son, and she appears to have suffered from depression herself throughout her life.
That these two women could become friends seems too good to be true. And maybe it was because they couldn’t maintain their friendship for more than a few years. But how their lives converge is an interesting story. Elizabeth and Hazel is a very readable book, and a wonderful look at important moments in U.S. history.
And, after all these years, I can finally look at that haunting photograph and have some answers.