On September 4, 1957, a young photographer named Will Counts snapped a photograph that would forever pose two women—one black and one white—as the faces of America’s fight for desegregation.
As recounted in David Margolick’s new book Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, the story begins on a landmark day in America’s civil rights journey—the first day an African American student tried to attend a white school. Actually, there were supposed to be nine, but the other eight were delayed from heading to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, because of rumors that a riot was brewing.
Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford didn’t get the memo, and arrived at Central just in time to meet a mob of protesters. Smack dab in the center of the crowd, Central High sophomore Hazel Bryan opened her mouth and began spewing vitriol in Elizabeth’s direction—just in time to be caught on camera and forever be marked as the scapegoat of American bigotry. Similarly, Elizabeth became the martyr for all those who had suffered the scorn of white hatred.
From that photograph, Margolick journeys with the two women through the politics of prejudice in Arkansas, past outrage that the photo evoked on both the national and international stage, and into their own personal stories that are as conflicted as America’s struggle toward racial reconciliation.
Elizabeth survived the mob, but continued to carry with her the weight of fear and humiliation as she and the other eight students—forever plastered in history textbooks as the “Little Rock Nine”—took their seats at Central. As Elizabeth was fending off racist bullies, Hazel was finding her place at another high school, as her parents had removed her from Central soon after the protest to protect her from the negative publicity. Elizabeth survived the year at Central and then transferred to a school in St. Louis when authorities decided to close down Central for a year. Hazel got married before she finished high school and began setting up life as a Southern housewife.
Elizabeth floundered for years—notwithstanding the several years she served in the military—eventually having two sons out of wedlock and settling back down in Little Rock while trying to avoid meddling reporters and unsolicited interviews. Hazel, meanwhile, was growing into quite a different portrait than the one depicted in Will Counts’ picture. Ashamed of her moment of notoriety—a moment she said she could barely remember—Hazel tracked down Elizabeth’s number and called her to apologize. Although this initial apology was simply that, it set the stage for an unlikely future relationship between these two photographically juxtaposed enemies.
Years later, Hazel reached out again. This time, Elizabeth was primed to learn more about her famed nemesis. The two met—really, for the first time—and an awkward friendship began to form. The two began making lunch dates, visiting each other’s homes, and exchanging gifts.
And then the public found out. Suddenly, the two were catapulted again into the spotlight—this time as the faces of racial reconciliation. The interview requests poured in, invitations were made, speeches were given. They genuinely looked the part.
But, eventually, the relationship soured. Elizabeth wasn’t convinced that Hazel had “fully owned up to her past.” Hazel wished Elizabeth would believe her and move on. The rift grew, even as the two continued to pose for photo ops together. At one point, Elizabeth labeled a picture of the two of them together with this statement: “True reconciliation can occur only when we honestly acknowledge our painful, but shared, past.”
Whether or not Hazel had “honestly acknowledged” her past, Elizabeth had pinpointed the root of what prevents true healing. Catherine Claire Larson, former editor for BreakPoint and author of As We Forgive, a book about forgiveness and reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda, writes,
It’s important to distinguish apology from two often substituted, but false means of reconciliation: appeasement and account. . . . Both appeasement and account miss the mark when there is real wrongdoing. Only in an apology do we have someone taking responsibility for his or her actions, expressing sorrow over those actions, and promising not to repeat the deed again. Only in apology does the request for forgiveness come on the heels of accepting the guilt.
Whether injury has occurred on the killing fields of Rwanda or in a family torn apart, true repentance—which involves complete honesty—is the basis for complete restoration. Perhaps Hazel’s well-meant attempts felt too much like appeasement, too much like a Band-Aid on decades of festering hurt.
At the same time, Elizabeth may have been wrestling with prejudice of her own that could have colored her understanding of Hazel’s apology. Whatever the cause, Elizabeth’s later treatment of Hazel put her now, at least as Hazel saw it, in the offender’s seat. Margolick writes, “New barriers had replaced the old: while black suspicions remain, now whites feel, in addition to their residual prejudices, maligned, belittled, aggrieved.”
Neither Hazel nor Elizabeth professed to be particularly “religious.” While this descriptor is shallow at best, it likely indicates that neither of them had yet experienced the redeeming and restoring power of Christ in their lives—the only power that can fuel a truly lasting reconciliation. Relationships are messy and conflicted places. There are those that rest in ruins. And there are those which can be redeemed.
As Margolick reminds us, Elizabeth and Hazel’s story isn’t over yet.
Review copy obtained from the publisher.
Zoe Sandvig Erler is a freelance writer and editor from Indianapolis, Indiana. She has contributed to WORLD magazine, the Washington Times, and the Indianapolis Star. Most recently, she helped produce a documentary on the 2012 Super Bowl for WFYI, Indianapolis's public television affiliate.
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.