"The names Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery may not be well known, but the image of them from September 1957 surely 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 captures the full anguish of desegregation -- in Little Rock and throughout the South -- and an epic moment in the civil rights movement. In this gripping book, David Margolick tells the remarkable story of two separate lives unexpectedly braided together. He explores how the haunting picture of Elizabeth and Hazel came to be taken, its significance in the wider world, and why, for the next half-century, neither woman has ever escaped from its long shadow. He 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. The book 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"--Provided by publisher.
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It's the story of two women whose lives remain inextricably linked some 54 years after a moment in their shared history was captured on camera: the snapshot of a 15-year-old Hazel yelling racial epithets at 15-year-old Elizabeth, attempting to enroll as one of the first black students at Little Rock Central High School only to find herself caught and isolated in the midst of a howling mob. Is someone's life defined by one moment in time? Margolick's book explores that, even as he recounts the lives of both happy-go-lucky and careless Hazel, and quiet, studious Elizabeth; their experiences that first crucial year of integration (especially those of Elizabeth; while Hazel left the school, Elizabeth remained for a year during which she was harassed without letup.)
It's the latter third of the book that is most striking, as it deals with the brief friendship between the two; while Hazel had apologized to Elizabeth as early as 1963, in the 1990s the two women became friendly for a few years, an event that dewy-eyed sentimentalists chose to view as an example of how the United States could overcome its history of legalized discrimination and violence against its African-American citizens. Needless to say, nothing in life is ever that simple. The two women pulled apart, with Elizabeth disappointed and angry that (in her mind) Hazel showed no willingness to engage with the deeper-rooted racism Elizabeth was convinced still existed in her and her family; Hazel, for her part, being bemused by Elizabeth's growing anger and inability to look forward. "Whites weren't ready for desegregation in 1957, and blacks weren't ready for reconciliation now. Elizabeth didn't want reconciliation; she wanted revenge." Hazel grows to envy the openly racist students from Central, who gave Elizabeth far more grief and yet who never felt called on to apologize, and who lived quiet lives.
This is a fascinating book to read, because Margolick somehow manages (at least in my eyes) to do the impossible and walk the narrow line dividing the two women, understanding and communication the point of view of each while also understanding the flaws and foibles of both women. Moving to the US in my 30s, even as a US citizen, I had little understanding of how visceral these race issues were. In Canada, where I attended college and lived in my 20s and early 30s, while such things exist, they don't carry the same weight, given the minimal history of slavery and Jim Crow-style laws. (But then in Canada, "visible minorities" historically made up a smaller part of the population.) Arriving to live for the first time in the US as an adult, listening to both sides, I found both perspectives -- ably represented here -- distressing. Hazel was certainly a racist, or held racist views -- and became the face of bigotry in that infamous photo. Yet she had the courage -- long before it was fashionable -- to apologize and seek forgiveness. Yet for many of those in Little Rock, no apology would ever be sincere enough to matter. I can understand why a traumatized Elizabeth pulled back from the friendship; why a despondent and exhausted Hazel withdrew. And yet the fact that they did saddens me.
So this was a very emotional book to read, even without having been part of the history myself. Does this mean that a century from now, we will still be struggling with the legacy of racism in the south -- the lynchings, the denial of humanity? In a way, the issues that Margolick addresses in the later history of the two women are ones that seem to me to dominate the whole debate over race, making this an important book, even if both women are weary of being viewed as symbols. Perhaps they both still have something to teach us, if we can hear, listen and strive to understand. 4.5 stars
How could these two women be friends? For a while it looked as if it could happen, but there was a big sticking point. Have you read reports of a rapist or near rapist who insists that he was just "fooling around"? He didn't mean anything bad by what he did and was kind of surprised by how upset the woman became. So when he apologizes he means his apology, he's truly sorry the woman was upset but he doesn't really own up to the evil intent of his actions. That's pretty much what happened with Hazel. She looks back at that picture of herself spewing invectives and says she was just fooling around and trying to get attention, she didn't really hate Elizabeth or any other African American. She apologized to Elizabeth and meant it, but Elizabeth sees that Hazel can't own up to the hate expressed in her actions, and she can't overcome her resentment of that hatred.
Elizabeth's introversion and self reliance enabled her to walk through that screaming crowd, to attend a year of school in which she was harassed daily, but it holds her back from forgiveness. Hazel's extroversion and optimism help her forgive herself for her missteps but hold her back from the self analysis that could lead to true repentance. How can these women be friends? How can anyone overcome strong differences in order to maintain friendship. Can we really overcome the urge to dislike "the other?" Margolick's book raises the questions and is a great base for discussion, but we need to come up with our own answers, if there are any.
This book will make you cry and make you angry but you can't stop reading. Elizabeth was emotionally damaged because of the experience, the least of which was the isolation from the other students, her family and anyone that could have helped her. Despite what you think of segregation and integration, this was a young person that suffered and shouldn't have. The author makes clear what happens after the photo, after the main event, after everyone walks away. It brings to mind the saying that "names will never hurt you". What a lie. That is the story of these young women's lives, a story we should never forget.
The book details the events leading up to the historic event and photo and what happened to the two girls subsequently. Their lives are detailed past the 50-year anniversary of Elizabeth’s walk.
Elizabeth suffered from post-traumatic stress as a result of her year at the school, but she eventually met Hazel who asked for forgiveness. The two became friends, although misunderstandings, perhaps inevitably, strained their relationship.
A very balanced view of both women is presented. There is no doubt that the author recognizes Elizabeth’s courage, but he does not canonize her; her flaws are not concealed. Likewise, Hazel is not demonized; her despicable behaviour is explained as best as it possibly can. At times I found myself becoming frustrated with one and then I’d lose patience with the other.
Parts of the book read more like a newspaper article, which is perhaps not surprising since the author is a journalist. This is the case in the middle section which lists the reactions of the public to the photo and its influence on a variety of people.
The book is certainly worth reading; it reveals two ordinary people who inadvertently found themselves as symbols of a conflict. To the author’s credit, he lets the reader see beyond the symbolism to the very hearts of the two women.
David Margolick gives a much broader picture that the one photograph of that day, beginning with brief explanations of how Hazel and Elizabeth reached that point, and continuing with the story of what happened to the Little Rock Nine after they began at Central. While much of the Civil Rights era was before I was born and reads like history to me, both of these women experienced it and are still living, making the issues of race relations and prejudice all the more present and less historical in feel. It's a powerful story and one that leaves a lot to discuss: should a person be defined by one moment? how would you have reacted as a student, either black or white? can major breaches like these ever truly heal?