Book Tells How Iconic Civil Rights Era Photo Changed Lives of 2 Women

December 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The story of how one iconic civil rights era photograph changed the lives of two women is the subject of David Margolick's new book, "Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock." Ray Suarez and the Vanity Fair editor discuss the not-yet-finished story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, it’s said one picture is worth 1,000 words, but, sometimes, one picture can change lives.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: September 1957, Little Rock, Ark. Three years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision.

Nine black students attempted to enroll at Little Rock’s all-white Central High School. There, they were confronted by an angry mob and were turned back by a detachment of the Arkansas National Guard. As the students left, one of the more indelible images of the civil rights era was captured, two young girls, both 15, one black, one white, one resolutely ignoring the hate speech all around her, the other shouting racial epithets.

For more than 50 years, that picture has haunted both women, Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan. The intersections of their lives is the focus of a new book, “Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock,” by David Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

I recently talked with him at Alexandria, Va.’s Black History Museum.

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David Margolick, welcome to the program.

DAVID MARGOLICK, Vanity Fair: Thank you very much.

RAY SUAREZ: The striking thing about the story you tell is the fact that it’s made up, it’s a mountain of accidents, starting with a day in September 1957.

DAVID MARGOLICK: Elizabeth was supposed to have gone with the other eight black children who were desegregating the school or supposed to desegregate the school on that day, but hadn’t gotten the message. And so she showed up by herself.

And there was already a mob of people waiting for the black kids to show up. And she, unfortunately, happened to be the first. And she was especially conspicuous, dressed all in white, this black girl walking into a crowd. And the crowd formed around her.

And Hazel became part of the crowd. Hazel wasn’t a particularly politically active student, didn’t really follow what was going on, I think probably could have told you very little about Brown vs. the Board of Education and the whole process of desegregation.

But she fell in with her friends that morning. And her friends were sort of rabble-rousers. And Hazel joined in with them and was a bit of a performer and wanted to outdo them. And so she happened to be right behind Elizabeth, shouting terrible epithets at her.

RAY SUAREZ: So, here they are, these two girls, similar age, but they had very different life trajectories after that very moment caught in the photograph, didn’t they?

DAVID MARGOLICK: They were very similar by background. They were the same age. They were the same socioeconomic class. Even their houses were very similar. They lived only a few miles apart from one another.

But from the moment that this picture was taken, their lives took dramatically different paths. Hazel — oddly enough, Hazel, who was so vociferous about trying to keep Elizabeth out of Central High School, because of the notoriety of the picture and the fact that the picture was broadcast all over the world, her parents became fearful for her security, and actually pulled her out of Central High School and sent her to another school nearby that was closer to her home. She dropped out of school and had a family very, very quickly.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, stayed in Central that whole year. I mean, I tell the story in the book about the terrible ordeals to which the Little Rock Nine were subjected that whole year, which in many ways were worse even than the moment that was depicted in this picture.

I mean, this picture was a momentary thing, whereas the year that Elizabeth spent in Central was really a hellish experience, being thrown down the stairs, being, you know, knocked into their lockers, being scalded in the shower, being harassed in every which way, all with the object of trying to get her out of the school.

And I think that, in a way, it was an experience from which Elizabeth never fully recovered. Elizabeth, already, her family had a kind of predisposition to depression to begin with. And Elizabeth was later diagnosed with PTSD. She had a terrible time after her year in Central. She dropped out of a couple of colleges.

She tried to kill herself a couple of times. She was — she went into the Army briefly — well, not briefly, for four or five years, but went on disability after that and was essentially out of commission for decades.

RAY SUAREZ: But both were marked by that day at Central High.

Elizabeth Eckford couldn’t escape that she was one of the Little Rock Nine. A life that might have been lived very quietly and under the radar kept otherwise pulling her back into the spotlight, didn’t it?

DAVID MARGOLICK: I think that’s right.

I think the picture kept pulling them back into the spotlight, because the picture became more and more famous with passage — with the passage of time. It was the kind of thing that everybody, that you and I both saw in our American history books. It appeared in every Black History Month. Every anniversary, the fifth, the 10th, the 15th, this picture appeared. Everyone knows this picture.

RAY SUAREZ: But there was a shot at redemption for Hazel, and she took it. She really changed over time.

DAVID MARGOLICK: Hazel was haunted by this picture, not immediately, it’s true. But within a few years, she realized that she had done something terribly wrong.

And I think that a crucial juncture in the story occurs — we’re not even exactly sure, but around 1962 or 1963, by which point Hazel has a couple of young children. And she is suddenly realizing that these little kids who are at her feet are going to grow up and learn that that girl in the picture is their mother.

And she’s going to have to explain it to them and who she was and why she did it and what she had done to make amends. And so, in 1962 or 1963, without discussing it beforehand with anyone, she tracks down Eckford in the phone book and calls up Elizabeth and says, “I’m the girl in the picture, and I just want to you know how sorry I am.”

RAY SUAREZ: Yet, what is very appealing about what could be a story of redemption for both of them ends up being a little bit more complicated than that. The women become friends, yet it’s not all smooth sailing, is it?

DAVID MARGOLICK: Thirty-five years go by. Will Counts, the original photographer, brings the two women back to be photographed again for what was sort of a publicity shot in 1997 on the 40th anniversary of the desegregation.

And the picture becomes a big deal in Little Rock. Hazel has spent much of the interim years trying still to make amends for what she has done. She has been very active working with unwed black mothers, working with underprivileged black kids.

But then the miraculous part of the story begins, because the two become friends. It isn’t just a publicity stunt. The two of them start making appearances together. They give speeches together. They visit schools together. And they discover that they actually have a fair amount in common. They like one another.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. And it doesn’t last because Elizabeth, who is an extremely intelligent and discerning and judgmental woman, thinks that she finds holes in Hazel’s story. And Hazel, who is already getting grief from blacks for being insincere and for coming forward belatedly, and maybe she’s trying to make a quick buck, blacks are skeptical of what she’s done.

The Little Rock Nine, other people in the Little Rock Nine wonder who she is and why she’s doing what she is doing, and criticize Elizabeth for making up with her.

And, in the meantime, whites in Little Rock are also angry at Hazel. Hazel, after all, has embarrassed them for many, many years with this picture. And they think: We did nothing wrong. We were good kids. We were good high school kids. We weren’t harassing the black kids. And yet we have her hung around our neck for 40 years.

So, Hazel feels she’s getting flak from whites, she’s getting flak from blacks, she’s getting flak from Elizabeth. She doesn’t need it anymore, and the two of them split apart.

But part of the story is that they don’t fully split apart. And from that moment on, and even to this day, there is an indelible bond between these two women. The story of Elizabeth and Hazel is not yet complete. I mean, there’s another chapter, I think, to be written. It may not be by me, but, to me, their relationship is unresolved and incomplete still at this point.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock,”

David Margolick, thanks a lot.

DAVID MARGOLICK: Ray, thanks so much for having me.