Elizabeth and Hazel: New book captures a snapshot of racial tension in America

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

Elizabeth & Hazel

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock is an important new book from Yale about the two fifteen-year-old girls—one black, one white—who appeared in one of the most unforgettable photographs of the US civil rights era. Today we take a look at this exciting new title, which delves into the lives of these two women, a microcosm of race relations in America.

The names Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery may not be well known, but the image of them from September 1957 is: a black high school girl, dressed in white, walking stoically in front of Little Rock Central High School, and a white girl standing directly behind her, face twisted in hate, screaming racial epithets. This famous photograph (taken by 26-year-old journalist Will Counts) captures the full anguish of desegregation – in Little Rock and throughout the South – and an epic moment in the civil rights movement.

The photograph that shamed America: Elizabeth Eckford, followed and taunted by an angry crowd (including Hazel Bryan), after she was denied entry to Little Rock Central High School, 4 September 1957

The photograph that shamed America: Elizabeth Eckford, followed and taunted by an angry crowd (including Hazel Bryan), after she was denied entry to Little Rock Central High School, 4 September 1957

In his gripping new book Elizabeth and HazelVanity Fair journalist David Margolick paints a vivid picture of the event itself. In a recent extract from the Sunday Telegraph, Margolick describes Elizabeth’s fraught journey to Little Rock Central High School, the first of its kind to be desegregated, as angry crowds begin to form:

Three young girls, barely into their teens, fell in directly behind Elizabeth. They were clearly together, and clearly students; two of them, like Elizabeth, carried books. They wanted to be at the very centre of things. And they wanted to get really close to Elizabeth – close enough to let her know that they didn’t want her in their school. “Two, four, six, eight! We don’t want to integrate!” they chanted.

One girl, Hazel Bryan, looked livid, her face poisoned with hate. As Benjamin Fine of The New York Times later described her, she was “screaming, just hysterical, just like one of these Elvis Presley hysterical deals, where these kids are fainting with hysteria”. Her eyes narrowed, her brow furrowed, her teeth clenched, Hazel shouted: “Go home, nigger! Go back to A-”. Click. “-frica!” Will Counts, a photographer for the Arkansas Democrat, had his picture.

When it comes down to it, Counts’s famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford is really more of Hazel Bryan: it is on Hazel that the eyes land, and linger.

In the febrile media aftermath, Elizabeth became one of the most widely-known high school students in America (with the angry Hazel Bryan following close behind).

Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan at Little Rock Central High School (1997)

Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan at Little Rock Central High School (1997)

Margolick’s book tells the remarkable story of two separate lives unexpectedly braided together. He explores the haunting picture’s significance in the wider world, and why, for the next half-century, neither woman has ever escaped from its long shadow. Margolick recounts Elizabeth’s struggle to overcome the trauma of her hate-filled school experience, and Hazel’s long efforts to atone for a fateful, horrible mistake.

Elizabeth and Hazel follows the painful journey of the two as they progress from apology to forgiveness to reconciliation and, amazingly, to friendship. This friendship foundered, then collapsed – perhaps inevitably – over the same fissures and misunderstandings that continue to permeate American race relations more than half a century after the unforgettable photograph at Little Rock. And yet, as Margolick explains, a bond between Elizabeth and Hazel, silent but complex, endures.

David Margolick is contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review. He was for fifteen years a legal affairs reporter at the New York Times, writing the weekly “At the Bar” column and covering the trial of O. J. Simpson, among others. Elizabeth and Hazel is available now from Yale University Press.

Read an extract from the David Margolick’s book in the telegraph

Watch the Trailer for Elizabeth and Hazel (below)

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