For Elizabeth, it was a monumental day that she and her family and neighbors had planned for months. It was the start of a new era, perhaps a new beginning that would bring the freedom and equality they had dreamed of. But it turned into a day of terror and pain that haunted her for the rest of her life.
For Hazel, it was not that different from any other day. Wearing a mint-green dress that she hoped would impress the boys, her main concern at the time, she got caught up in the angry crowd out front, shouting hateful remarks at Elizabeth as she walked past. Her rage and hate would perhaps have been forgotten had a photographer (actually, several photographers) not been there to capture that moment. And so Hazel came to represent all the racism of the South, and she too became haunted by the events of that day.
In Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, David Margolick tells the story of that September day when nine African-Americans who came to be known as the Little Rock Nine first attempted to begin their studies at Central High. His focus is on the two women—Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery—whose photograph landed in newspapers around the world, depicting the rage of the white South and the dignified perseverance of African-Americans. Years later, the two women became friends, and their story came to mean hope for forgiveness and reconciliation, but as Margolick explains, misunderstandings and personality differences caused them to sever their relationship, revealing that for all the steps we make forward, we still have a long way to go.
I won’t mince words but will say flat-out that this is an important book. It’s important not just for what it reveals about U.S. history, although that is significant, but also for what it reveals about the present and how difficult it is even today to discuss race in America. The story of these two women reveals just how uncomfortable we still are with our own history and how large the task of righting past wrongs still remains, especially when there’s disagreement over what righting a past wrong should look like.
Margolick does not shy away from the difficulty, and neither does he provide answers or take sides (aside from his clear condemnation of the overtly racist actions of the past). He treats both women as individuals, even as he acknowledges how they are also symbols of our shared past and present and our hopes and fears for the future. He tells about what each experienced that September day and what each woman’s life was like in the succeeding years.
Elizabeth’s time at Central High was difficult, with students shoving her in the hallways and yelling racist epithets after her. After leaving Central High, she attended college but didn’t finish, served in the Army, and returned to Little Rock, where she struggled with depression and poverty. It’s not the narrative we hope for when we think of the great Civil Rights pioneers.
Hazel’s parents withdrew her from Central High after the photograph was published, fearing what her new-found notoriety would lead to. She married before finishing high school and later came to regret her actions. Perhaps hoping in some way to atone for her wrongs, she started reading books about black history, challenging family members who expressed racist sentiments, and working with underprivileged teens, most of whom were black. She even called Elizabeth in 1963 to apologize for her actions on that September day in 1957.
Although Elizabeth accepted Hazel’s apology, the two women did not have any further contact until the 1990s, when they posed together for a photograph that some hoped would define a new epoch in race relations, one of reconciliation. The two soon became friends, going to flower shows together and appearing together at speaking engagements. Some people—white and black—were suspicious of Hazel’s motives, assuming that she was looking for attention. Elizabeth came to believe that Hazel was not fully acknowledging her own past wrongs. Hazel was confused about what precisely people expected of her and frustrated at their suspicion.
One of the things Margolick does well here is give each woman’s version of events space and credence. He doesn’t spend time trying to pick apart who’s right and who’s wrong. He does point out discrepancies in their accounts and misunderstandings, but he lets readers draw their own conclusions. As a reader, I came away with the feeling that both women are right and both women are wrong. Both are carrying the baggage of the past, as we all are, and both are affected by it in different ways, as we all are. Both have misunderstood and been misunderstood. And both seem to grieve their lost friendship. I’d like to say that this is a hopeful story, but it isn’t. It broke my heart again and again. But I’m so glad I read it.