Like most black Americans of the civil rights generation, I recognize the iconic photograph of Elizabeth Eckford in 1957 as she was taunted and threatened by white hecklers on her first day of school — the first day of school for nine black students at the newly desegregated Little Rock (Arkansas) Central High School. The first day of school!
I’d always seen Eckford as a brave and beautiful girl with the kind of courage most of us lack, and wondered what was in the mind of the teenaged girl behind her shield of notebooks and dark glasses. She seemed to have an otherworldly poise.
David Margolick’s Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, reveals a more fragile young woman than we could have known from the photograph alone. Despite her stoicism that day, for weeks, months and years afterward she suffered deeply and profoundly, and was forever scarred by the moment, a kind of post-traumatic stress reaction.
Margolick’s portrait of Elizabeth and her fellow poster girl, Hazel Bryan, provides a kind of thoughtful analysis of race behavior in our nation that is often missing after public displays of intense emotion when the press and the public seek to simplify and categorize. In a recent interview on NPR Morning Edition interview with David Margolick, he talked about the “tendency to sentimentalize” the story, the display of hate and later reconciliation of a sort on the 40th anniversary of the incident when a photograph was taken of the two women together, a simple denouement that negates the complexity and the cost to indviduals and the nation.
In 2009, Carlotta Walls LaNier, another member of the Little Rock Nine began chipping away at the sentimentality with her book, A Mightly Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High. LaNier took 40 years to speak out about her experience of being overwhelmed by the hatred she faced, as well as the national notoriety and talk of bravery.
Given the damage to these individuals, imagine the national scars even in this time that some would like to see as a post-racial society.