In early November of last year, I heard author David Margolick being interviewed by MSNBC’s Hardball host, Chris Matthews. Margolick, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair as well as to the New York Times Book Review, had written a new book entitled Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock. It’s the story of two women and a picture. And as soon as the picture appeared on the television screen, I instantly recognized it, and knew I had to read this book.
The two women referred to in the title are Elizabeth Eckford, who is African American and Hazel Massey, who is white. Their story begins when neither one was an adult woman, but rather two teens caught up in the ugly racial bigotry, fear and hate that school desegregation stirred up to the surface of the American South. The linkage between them was instantaneously forged by a photograph taken in September, 1957. In it, Elizabeth is seen walking stoically in sunglasses in front of Little Rock Central High School, while Hazel is seen standing directly behind her. Hazel’s face is contorted by hate as she yells racial epithets at Elizabeth. This famous image (actually there were more than one photo and more than one photographer) directly captured the true torment that school desegregation produced in Arkansas and throughout much of the South. It became an iconic record of the times of the civil rights movement, and the source of myriad articles, comments and other forms of discourse on race relations, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Margolick weaves together a complex chronicle explaining how the famous and haunting photo of the two young women came to be taken in the first place, its immediate and continued impacts, and why neither Elizabeth nor Hazel has ever managed to escape its powerful heritage. But as much as it is a story of race relations, it is also one of forgiveness in that it follows the often painful paths both women pursue to get on with life, and with each other as their relationship progresses from a simple, initial apology, to forgiveness, reconciliation, and even friendship. Although this last stage, the friendship, did not last, the common bond between them brought about by that fateful photo endures to this day.
A first class read both as a finely crafted history of one culminating event in the fight for school desegregation, as well as a study of the bad, the good and the roads of redemption that humans search for as they attempt to travel from the former to the latter.
Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock