The crisis had been triggered by Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who, under intense political pressure, had sent the National Guard to block the Little Rock Nine from entering the school. Twice Eckford asked the guards to let her by, and twice they turned her away. With nowhere else to go, she headed back to the bus stop at the end of the block. But that meant passing the huge crowd of whites that had gathered in front of Central. Some of them started to trail behind her, shouting threats and racial slurs. Television cameramen and newspaper photographers rushed to capture the moment: Eckford stoically marching down the street, her face frozen, her books clutched to her chest; the mob two or three steps removed, at its center little Hazel Bryan, also 15, hysterical with rage, screaming at Eckford to go back to Africa.
In “Elizabeth and Hazel,” journalist David Margolick follows the two women from that instant to the present day. It would have been simple enough to turn their stories into a “where are they now” piece. But Margolick is after something bigger. Through Eckford and Bryan’s tangled lives, he hopes to capture the complexity of race, forgiveness and reconciliation in modern America.
Eckford’s experience at Central — not just that first day but the year that followed — brutalized her; for decades afterward, she seemed to suffer from a crippling case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Bryan, meanwhile, married at 18, had three children and moved decisively away from the bigotry she’d put on display back in 1957. Sometime in 1962 or ’63, she phoned Eckford and apologized.
They didn’t speak again until September 1997, when a Little Rock newspaper brought them together for a photo, the two of them standing side by side in front of the high school, smiling for the camera. It was an immediate sensation, made all the greater when Bill Clinton, speaking at a widely covered 40th-anniversary celebration three days later, referred to Bryan as Eckford’s “reconciled friend.”
For the next two years they tried to live up to the claim Clinton had made. They gave talks on college campuses, traveled together to receive awards, considered turning their story into a book — Margolick was one of the authors who contacted them about the possibility — and even appeared on “Oprah.” They spent a good bit of time together offstage too, sharing meals and shopping trips and the occasional night out.