David Margolick: unforgettable photo, unforgettable story


Everyone knows the famous 1957 photo, but few people knew what happened after it was snapped.  Now David Margolick has told the story in Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock.

The photo: During the historic 1957 desegregation of a Little Rock high school, a journalist Will Counts took a photograph that captured the moment – young black student Elizabeth Eckford headed for school, and her tormentor, Hazel Bryan.

David can’t recall how old he was when he first saw the iconic photograph.  “I could no more tell you than I could when I first saw the picture of the little boy in the Warsaw ghetto with his hands up. You just know you’re changed once you see it,” he told CNN. “These are images that haunt you for the rest of your life.”

David, actually, had his beginnings as a Michigan Daily photographer rather than a journalist, back in the days when I was a cub reporter (and before he went on to Stanford Law School). He was a gifted photographer himself, so it’s no surprise he was so deeply affected by the photo.  Then he saw another.

When he visited the Arkansas high school over a decade ago, he saw a picture of the two women reconciled.  “I realized this was the same Elizabeth and Hazel, only they were grown up and they were friendly. … I thought, as any journalist would, how did we get from the first picture to the second? And why didn’t I know anything about it? How had these two archetypal racial antagonists buried the hatchet? How could that be? So that’s what made me curious enough to start looking into it.”

The reconciliation between the women wasn’t permanent – they are no longer speaking – but  their complex bond endures.

Somehow on my travels I missed the launch of David’s book, so I’m coming a bit late on the scene. Of course I’d read his earlier story, “Through a Lens, Darkly,” which was published in Vanity Fair in 2007.

Giving the book a plug now is a bit like rolling a rock downhill.  When you’ve gotten blurbed Bill Clinton, you don’t need a boost from me:  “The iconic image of Elizabeth and Hazel at age fifteen showed us the terrible burden that nine young Americans had to shoulder to claim our nation”s promise of equal opportunity. The pain it caused was deeply personal. … We all need to know about Elizabeth and Hazel.”

So let me just excerpt a few words from the Vanity Fair Q&A:

There’s an idiom about how the first person through the wall always get hurt most. Does this kind of oversimplification help us understand Elizabeth Eckford?

I think she was the most vulnerable of the Nine [African-American students], and it is a great pity that she was the one who happened to show up there first. She had a certain predisposition, a certain kind of sensitivity, that some of the other of the Nine didn’t have. She’s an absolutely extraordinary woman, and her sensitivity is part of her extraordinariness.

Did it really take seven years for Hazel to even speak with you?

Hazel got bad vibrations from me that first time we met. She thought that I was paying more attention to Elizabeth than I was to her. And Hazel had read up on the history of the civil-rights movement, particularly the origins of the N.A.A.C.P., and she knew that historically Jews and blacks had been allies. From what I said and how I acted, she thought that Elizabeth and I would become natural partners at her expense. It had never occurred to me that Hazel might react this way. I had thought, quite naïvely, that the white woman would feel more comfortable with me than the black woman would.

Over those seven years, this was still becoming an article?

Yes. I made several more trips to Little Rock, realizing that Elizabeth’s story was plenty complex. When the story appeared on Vanity Fair’s Web site, in September 2007, to coincide with the 40th anniversary, Hazel read it and I think she was touched by some of the things Elizabeth said about her. And she could see that I wasn’t yet another writer who’d come along either to ignore her or trash her—that, even though she hadn’t cooperated with me, I still tried to be fair to her. From that moment on, Hazel made herself available to me.

That day in 1957 defined Elizabeth and Hazel in drastic ways. Which of these two women did it define more?

Hazel. I think that Elizabeth had a kind of stoicism, a kind of depression, a kind of sensitivity that was exacerbated by what happened to her. But Elizabeth’s life was going to be troubled no matter what. As I say in the book, that picture is really more of Hazel than it was of Elizabeth: she is the dominant figure in it, literally at its center. Hazel is the one who will go to the grave knowing that the image will be part of civilization as long as civilization endures. Hazel hasn’t gotten over the fact that, despite all the good deeds she has done, her plea for forgiveness wasn’t granted and her sincerity was doubted. Hazel got it from all sides. So she’s retreated, and it will be very hard to coax her out of her shell, though I hope that for her sake, and Elizabeth’s, it happens someday.

And from his interview on CNN this week:

People want so badly for this story to have something like a happy ending. What does it say about America that this happy ending never materialized?

I think it says something about American naïveté that we think it should have materialized, and about American impatience over the fact that it hadn’t. This would be a much bigger story, a more newsworthy story, if it had materialized. Then Oprah would be talking about it again. And the fact that it hasn’t yet makes it less interesting to people, when that fact is, it should make it more interesting to people because it’s real.

So it’s very stirring – movies get made of unrealistic, completely implausible situations like The Help, but not vexing real-world situations like this one. And that’s very sad. Revisionism is much more popular, much more marketable, than reality. You can walk out of the theater eating your popcorn and feeling happy. I wanted there to be a happy ending to this story, but I felt it wasn’t my role to stage manage a happy ending when there wasn’t. …

What did writing this book teach you about racism and race relations?

It just reminded me of how complex they are, I guess, and how heavy the hand of history is on us still, and how omnipresent America’s racial legacy remains. There’s no such thing as ‘post-racial,’ and all these problems are still lurking. They’ve just gone a bit beneath the surface. They’re not as bad as they once were, but there’s still a long way to go. I write all my books trying to figure out the kind of person I am, how I would behave in those circumstances and these books give me a chance to ponder that.

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