Elizabeth and Hazel Summary

David Margolick

Elizabeth and Hazel

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Elizabeth and Hazel Summary

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A black and white photograph taken outside of Little Rock Central High School on September 4 of 1957, has seared the civil rights movement into our American consciousness.  Many writers choose to knit their creative works around such volatile and pivotal moments in history.  Central High School and the lives of the two adolescent female students captured at that moment in time, create the perfect backdrop and characters for a thorough nonfiction book, Elizabeth and Hazel, written by David Margolick, published by Yale University Press.

What happened after the photographers turned their lenses away from Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan?  This is where determined journalism and history merge to create strong narrative with lasting implications and themes that clearly need to remain on the front burner.  This thorough examination captures the years that followed in both women’s lives.

Will Counts was the photographer who took the picture in 1957 with his Kodak Brownie for The Arkansas Democrat newspaper, and he was the photographer who stood the same two woman outside Central High School for the second time.  The photo was labeled Reconciliation. All those years later, Eckford and Bryan  had the opportunity to get to know one another without the National Guard, or the politics and prejudice of the time coming between them.

Margolick interviewed both women in-depth to examine their individual lives as well as the relationship they stitched together as older women trying to heal.  They took the time to travel side by side and talk candidly to school kids who may not have understood the late 1950s and the civil rights movement simply by reading the pages of a social studies text book.  They appeared on Oprah and made other media appearances which put the two of them as individuals, as well as their friendship, under a harsh microscope. Unfortunately, Eckford’s and Bryan’s reconciliation did not last as long as their photographs.  In 2007 the two women came to feel their friendship had unraveled, perhaps due in part to the scrutiny of the public eye.  However, Margolick said in an interview that despite their friendship having dissolved, he did not feel a sense of pessimism but a sense of progress in their lives being rejoined after such a devastating event all those years back.

But what did Margolick learn about their earlier lives?  Eckford remained at Central High School for about a year after the photo was taken, and developed PTSD from being physically and mentally abused by those who wanted their hallways and classrooms to remain purely white.  The angry mob outside had chanted, “Lynch her!” and she had not make it inside the school that day the National Guard blocked the doorways.  In the days and months that followed, school administrators did nothing to intervene or stop the cruel harassment.  The following summer Eckford and others toured the country to speak about desegregation, but being vocal did not help heal her wounds.

Eckford became increasingly introverted,  dropped out of college and joined the Army before returning to school and achieving a BA in History.  As a single mother, depression plagued her and made taking care of her two boys a challenge.  Eventually one of her sons, who also suffered from depression, was killed by police when he fired a weapon into the street.  The only inspiration for Eckford to venture out from her solitary life was to speak about desegregation and what it was like to be one of the Little Rock Nine. Only years later did Eckford take off, enjoying her newfound work as a probation officer and in 1999 even receiving a Congressional Gold Medal.

Bryan’s parents moved her to another school after September 4, 1957.  They were worried about her wellbeing after being labeled by the image of her angry stance in the photograph. Her father was thirty years old when he married his fourteen-year old wife.  He worked in the sawmill as did the rest of their family. Bryan, like her mother, married young to have a family, but the photograph haunted her and on her own accord she phoned Eckford to apologize.  Still, despite Bryan’s urge to seek forgiveness, as mature women all those years later, the threads from Little Rock remained.  Eckford felt as she grew stronger in her life that she could not ignore the racism and the truth that Bryan still longed to sweep under the rug.

The themes of Elizabeth and Hazel are varied and complex, illustrating bigotry, redemption, forgiveness, human endurance and perseverance, and also how despite our best efforts, history does repeat itself.  These themes are forever relevant and therefore the stories they reveal do not become passé.  Margolick drives these themes home by not sugar-coating or leaving the reader with an unrealistically happy ending.

David Margolick is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of Strange Fruit:  The Biography of Song,  Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink.

Critical reviews of Elizabeth and Hazel were extremely positive, from The New York Times, to The Boston Globe, The LA Times and Bill Clinton.  Readers responses are also favorable, and Margolick’s nonfiction book is chosen time and time again for reading groups, classroom studies as well as individual enjoyment.