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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Friday, February 17, 2012

THE PRICE OF HEROISM, by Eve Silberman

cover of David Margolick's book Elizabeth and Hazel

“A life is more than a moment.” Hazel Bryan Massery has spent half a century repeating a curiously poignant truism—to family, to reporters, to curious audiences around the country. But the person whose affirmation she most wanted ultimately withheld it.

In Elizabeth and Hazel, Two Women of Little Rock(Yale University Press), U-M grad David Margolick tells the story, and then some, behind a famous photograph. In the fall of 1957, Elilzabeth Eckford, 15, prepared with trepidation to start Little Rock Central High—one of nine black students selected by a determined local civil rights leader to integrate an acclaimed but segregated institution. Her face shaded by sunglasses, wearing a crisp white skirt and shirt, and books held under one arm, Elizbeth, as she approached the school, was followed by a menacing crowd. The famous photo, by Central High grad Will Counts, shows a white girl with fury on her face shouting at Eckford. The expressions of others in the photo, all of who are white and either students or spectators, are difficult to decipher. But Hazel Bryan radiates hate.

Elizabeth and Hazel, both fifteen, were caught up in an emblematic moment of the civil rights era. So virulent was the resistance to the “Little Rock Nine,” as they came to be known, that president Dwight Eisenhower called in the National Guard to protect the black students. By then, however, the powerful photograph had appeared in newspapers around the world, getting particularly enthsiastic play in the Soviet Union—a public relations nightmare for the United States in the midst of the Cold War.

That moment, frozen in time by the photo, had profound implications for both women, who, decades after its appearance, came together in a fragile friendship. Though brash and attention-seeking as a teenager, Hazel also was curious and very bright, with an introspective side. After the publicity her parents moved her out of Central High. Five years later, when she was twenty, married, and a mother, she called Elizabeth and, weeping, apologized for her behavior.

Elizabeth accepted her apology, but it was to be another forty years before the two women met, in a visit arranged by photographer Counts. He took a “reconciliation” photograph of the two together, though, of course, it was never distribituted as widely as the original. For four years, the two women, both still in the Little Rock area, spoke jointly to audiences, and even appeared together on Oprah. They also attended garden shows, went out to lunch, and attended a reading by poet Maya Angelou.

Each woman, Margolick writes, “was far more introspective and inquisitive than those around them.” But Elizabeth’s adult life was much more difficult than Hazel’s. She suffered from terrible depression, which she traced to the horrifying year she spent at Central; after the National Guard left, the Little Rock Nine were taunted and even physically attacked—slammed against lockers, shoved on stairs—while the principal looked the other way. She raised two children on her own, and was frequently unemployed, though she finally found some stability working as a probation officer. Hazel stayed happily married to her high school boyfriend, enjoyed economic security, and was involved in many activities, including volunteering with black children and families. She also left her strict Baptist church and took up belly dancing and journaling.

But, after four years of a friendship both seemed to enjoy, the relationship soursed. As Margolick tells it, personal quirks of each woman began to irritate the other. But more significantly, Elizabeth believes that Hazel hasn’t sufficiently grappled with “her racist past and come fully clean.” For her part, Hazel comes to resent that nothing she says or does seems to bring forgiveness. It doesn’t help that Hazel also get grief from white friends who wish she’d just shut up about an event and a time that stigmatized their city.

Margolick closes the book, regretfully, by noting that the two women trapped forever in a photograph have not spoken in several years. It’s as though the anti-integrationists won something after all. Yet Hazel’s mother, once a staunch segregationist, welcomes Elizabeth to her home for lunch. And she votes for Obama. Maybe a life can be more than a moment.


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