Long Island Books: Not So Little Women

By Bob Zellner
David Margolick Lawrence Schiller

“Elizabeth and Hazel”
David Margolick
Yale University Press, $26


 

  Elizabeth and Hazel, two women of Little Rock captured in an iconic photograph, tell the story of Southern school desegregation. The classic frame reveals our beautiful young black heroine, Elizabeth Eckford, as she is harried by a hydra-headed lynch mob in formation. Hazel, the long-unidentified woman behind Elizabeth, is shown screaming racial epithets while dogging the heels of the slender, apparently serene and stoic schoolchild.
    For years that twisted face of an unknown harridan symbolized my redneck South in all its unrepentant racist glory — massively resisting social change. The two, one black, one white, along with eight other black youngsters, made Little Rock famous enough to dispense with “Arkansas” after it. In my home state of Alabama, they never needed to add “Tennessee” to signs urging, “See Rock City!” In 1957 another famous Rock joined the one in Tennessee.
    Hazel and Elizabeth’s griot, David Margolick, a Connecticut Yankee and veteran of various crusades, reveals himself to be a gentle, patient, and persistent interlocutor. The picture, snapped by Will Counts in the fall of 1957, captures both women like battling bugs suddenly paralyzed in amber. The attacker, Hazel Bryan, long thought to be a grown woman, maybe because of her sexy dress, was tracked down years later. She was revealed to be a fellow student — the same age as Elizabeth. The photo captured the imagination of Mr. Margolick, a writer for Vanity Fair. He labored to crack the encasing amber, releasing the two, now adults, to continue their struggle.
    The ensuing friendship between the women, their attempts at reconciliation, and the uncertain outcome occupy the bulk of this must-read book.
    Comparing and contrasting the backgrounds, character, and personalities of the two women of Little Rock, the author illuminates class, caste, and gender issues by using multiple lenses. He explores then and now, black and white, legend and reality. Mr. Margolick’s tale of Hazel’s apology to Elizabeth for her racist behavior and their subsequent friendship is simply stunning.
    The surprise coming together of the two icons, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, eventually results in their sharing podiums and talking about racial reconciliation.
    Is reconciliation possible? Is it even on the agenda? The story’s denouement, revealed slowly and lovingly by the author, is certainly astounding and informative, yet it remains somewhat unsatisfying. It is cautionary. Once in every generation or two something catches the imagination of the American public, providing a collective learning experience. A hinge turns somewhere in the universe, indicating things can never be the same again. School integration in Little Rock was such a moment.
    All 35 governors, before Orval Eugene Faubus took office in 1955, governed Arkansas as a quietly segregated state, except for occasional lynchings, like the one Mr. Margolick chronicles at the beginning of the book, occurring in 1927. Faubus, confronting the crisis of school integration, hung on for 11 more years by morphing cynically from a moderate on “the racial question” into a racist redneck hater.
    Like Gov. George Wallace of my state of Alabama, who stood in the schoolhouse door, Faubus knew better. Wallace and Faubus, both moderates on race, sold their souls and their integrity as human beings for a mess of political pottage. They had a chance to be true American heroes. As great as being governor is, the office is piddling compared to a chance to make a contribution to human rights. Did they really believe they, along with Bull Connor, Louise Day Hicks, Byron De La Beckwith, and Justice Clarence Thomas, would go down in history as great Americans?
    Elizabeth and Hazel, two little women of Little Rock, were caught up as children in this historic struggle. Elizabeth Eckford was the heroine of school integration in 1957, joining the pantheon occupied by Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Height, and Martin Luther King Jr. These are real heroes today. In my opinion, Hazel, too, became a hero by trying to rise above the racism she grew up with and reaching out to make amends.
    Historians argue that integration might have succeeded early on had speed and certainty won out over slow and deliberate. In the military, where orders are routinely followed, integration occurred quickly. Why didn’t Southern states integrate when ordered to do so by the Supreme Court? “Deliberate speed,” an olive branch offered by the court, allowed time for the forces of massive resistance to organize. When racists began to resist in Little Rock, the racially moderate Faubus could have been a statesman. Being of small character and short vision, however, he settled for more years in an insignificant governor’s office.
    Julian Bond, communications director of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and chairman emeritus of the N.A.A.C.P., says Little Rock, along with Emmett Till’s lynching, made him an activist. Black and white Southerners, contemporaries of Elizabeth Eckford and Till, testify how Till’s death frightened us, especially black youth, and how Elizabeth inspired us. Mr. Bond at first believed the movement needed only to bring injustice, bigotry, and racial atrocities to the attention of good Americans and it would be fixed.
    In fact, our struggle is depicted exactly that way in history books. Grade school and most college survey courses tell a beautiful story: “Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks boycotted buses in Montgomery, egged on by ‘Malcolm the Tenth’ (Malcolm X). American democracy was seen to be imperfect. President Kennedy and his brother fixed it; then everyone lived happily ever after, amen.”
    Happily, Mr. Margolick won’t settle for that. Freedom, we now know, is a constant struggle and must be worked at in every generation. The right wing constantly rolls back our victories. The Southern strategy, demonstrated by George Wallace and adopted by Reagan and the Republicans, is a good example.
    Critics ask why Mr. Margolick picks at scabs. Can’t we all just get along? He finds that a truly integrated life, or lifestyle, if possible at all given our bleak racial history, must be worked at. Progressive people, drawn to Elizabeth and Hazel’s cautionary tale, will now ask themselves a potentially embarrassing question: How racially integrated is my life?
    At the end of “Elizabeth and Hazel” (the book, not the story, because it has not yet ended), the two, who famously reconciled, have not spoken for a decade. Will their story be a comedy or a tragedy?
    Comedy’s conclusion or denouement always leaves the protagonist better off at the end. Tragedy usually ends in catastrophe, with the protagonist worse off than before. Who’s the protagonist in this drama? Who is the villain? Did the book go to press in the middle of a comedy or will it be another tragedy?

  David Margolick has a house in Sag Harbor.
    Bob Zellner is the author of “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement.” He lives in Southampton.