David Margolick’s book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, revolves around the by-now iconic civil rights photograph of two fifteen-year-old girls:
This photo, taken by journalist Will Counts, shows Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine African-American students who were denied entrance to Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. Behind her is Hazel Bryan Massery, in a crowd of other Little Rock citizens, shouting racial epithets at Elizabeth. Both those faces became representations of the South at that time: dignified perseverance and sorrow on the part of African-Americans; insane rage and hate on the part of white people.
Margolick spends the book exploring what happened after the shutter clicked — after that moment in time became unfrozen. Teresa’s review of this book from 2011 does a wonderful job summing it up: Elizabeth’s experiences at Central High School were profoundly scarring, and led her to a life weighed down by depression, disability, poverty, and fear. Though she eventually found her voice, it took decades for her to begin to use it for her own, or anyone else’s, advocacy.
Hazel, on the other hand, began to think about the consequences of her actions almost immediately. In the light of the 1960s and 1970s, she rethought racial and gender privilege and was eager to take responsibility for her own actions. She even called Elizabeth in 1963 to apologize for her share in what happened at Central High, long before the ambient temperature of the South had cooled down for race relations. Later still, the two women became friends — what a moment of hope for Little Rock, especially during the Clinton years! — and then, more quietly, the friendship fell apart again in a haze of wariness and misunderstandings. What does this say about race in America?
It’s interesting, of course, to find out what happened to the subjects of an iconic moment. We know what happened to all the Iwo Jima flag-raisers, for instance, while we don’t know what happened to Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” Margolick takes the significance of this particular photograph and, in my opinion, pushes it pretty hard. The history of the Little Rock Nine and their treatment at Central High is fascinating and important, and I also think it’s vital to know that it was not an inspiring and uplifting experience for all civil rights pioneers. Could most children have gone through constant harassment and isolation and violence, even for a year, without succumbing to it? I know that I couldn’t, and that’s with all my privilege and support network. I’d have liked to see Margolick expand his thoughts about the power structures at play: it wasn’t just Elizabeth’s depression that made her leave Knox College, for instance, but the fact that she was almost the only African-American student there. It wasn’t Elizabeth’s depression that caused her son’s “suicide by cop,” but a whole delicate interplay of poverty, welfare, mental health, gun control, and other matters that frequently pivot on race.
Later, though, when Margolick begins to analyze the friendship between the two women, the gears slip a bit. I understand why there was pressure for these two to meet and be friends. But what did they really have in common? Not upbringing, history, religion, education, or a circle of friends. If the only thing, culturally or in my background, that I had in common with another woman was a love of flowers, I doubt we would ever be close. Margolick puts the weight of the entire racial tension of the United States on the state of friendship of two women who were caught in the same photo at the same time. It’s far too much. They’ve gone from one iconic photo to another, and neither treats them as individuals.
I agree with some of Margolick’s conclusions about race in America. I think that sometimes, some white people have gotten bored with the push for equal rights, and would like to see some gratitude for all the hard work and good faith they’ve put in, not realizing how very far that attitude has to go to attain any version of equality. It’s the same with this book. As important as the topic is, if we believe both Elizabeth and Hazel are unique human beings, equal to each other and to all of the rest of us, how can we expect their friendship to mean anything more than our own friendships, which come and go, like our lives and our love?