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.
Gradually, though, the friendship frayed, pulled apart by petty disagreements and deepening distrust. Eckford couldn’t understand why Bryan preferred to think of what she’d done in front of Central High as a youthful indiscretion rather than the product of deep-seated racism. Bryan wondered whether Eckford believed her when she said she was sorry, as she had over and over again. By early 2000, they weren’t talking anymore.
In that breakdown Margolick sees the significance of their story. “Just as Elizabeth and Hazel represented racial reality in 1957,” he writes, “it could be argued, they still do in 2011. . . . If two people of such obvious intelligence, goodwill, and empathy, who even liked each other for that brief moment in time, can’t bridge the racial gap, then who can?”
But is it fair to ask Eckford and Bryan to carry such weight? Here are two women from dramatically different backgrounds, with dramatically different experiences, whose only connection was a single cruel moment when they were both 15, brought together 40 years later not by mutual interest but by the power of the media. That they failed to sustain their friendship is hardly surprising. What’s remarkable is that they tried at all.
Then there’s the deeper, more troubling issue that Margolick’s question raises. As compelling as they are, stories like Eckford’s and Bryan’s rest on the assumption that America’s racial divisions are personal, and overcoming them a matter of mutual understanding. But Eckford didn’t walk into Central High in 1957 to make new friends. She went there to help break down the legal and institutional barriers that denied African Americans equal opportunity.
The legal barriers are long gone. But the color line still runs through the nation’s neighborhoods, churches, prisons and, yes, schools, the divisions anchored in place by structural forces so deeply entrenched that they’ve defied every effort to dislodge them. In 2007, half a century after Hazel Bryan stalked Elizabeth Eckford down Park Street, 40 percent of African American kids still attended schools that were almost completely segregated. Half a century of discussion and debate, and more than a few deep friendships across the racial divide — and we have yet to overcome.
teaches history at Ohio State University. He is the author of “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age,” which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2004.