On Sept. 4, 1957, as I stepped off the school bus at Fair Park High School in Shreveport, La., Elizabeth Eckford was stepping off a city bus near Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. She and eight other African American students had been selected to integrate Central High.
The tense drama that took place on a sidewalk in Little Rock that morning was captured in a photograph that shocked the nation and changed the lives of two 15-year-old girls, setting them on a path no one could have predicted.
The plan was for the black students — who came to be called the Little Rock Nine — to gather at a prearranged location and enter the school together, accompanied by ministers and other supporters.
Someone forgot to tell Elizabeth. She arrived at the school alone and was immediately surrounded by a crowd of angry students and adults, shouting, “Go back where you came from,” “Go home, nigger.”
One of the students was 15-year-old Hazel Bryan.
Will Counts, photographer for the Arkansas Democrat, was ahead of Elizabeth on the sidewalk, facing her. Hazel Bryan was a step behind Elizabeth, just over her right shoulder in Counts’ viewfinder. Her face was contorted by a racist jeer when he snapped the picture.
Counts’ photograph went around the world overnight. By morning Elizabeth and Hazel were the opposing faces of the turbulence surrounding the integration of public schools in America.
More than 60 years later, I remember staring at that picture on the front page of my hometown newspaper. All the talk about states’ rights and gradualism, all the fearmongering about “outside agitators,” all the rationalizations about how “they” liked having their own schools, and this is what it came down to: a white mob terrorizing a lone, frightened teenaged girl.
It was raw racism. It was shameful. And it was undeniable.
Elizabeth’s life after high school did not go well. She suffered from depression and later was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her two children spent time in foster care. One of her sons was killed by police. After years of being unemployed, she became a probation officer for Pulaski County.
Hazel’s life after high school seemed no more promising. Her parents pulled her out of Central High the day after her picture appeared in the Arkansas Democrat. She got married at 16, had three children, and began to reflect on her ugly place in history. One day her children would see that picture. How would she explain?
Hazel set out to reinvent herself. She read books about race relations in America, took inner-city black children on field trips and counseled unwed mothers. She called Elizabeth and apologized.
In 1997, Will Counts had an idea for another picture of Elizabeth and Hazel, this one to be taken on the fortieth anniversary of the integration of Central High. The Little Rock Nine would be there. President Clinton would be the principal speaker.
In the preceding four decades Elizabeth and Hazel had spoken only once, when Hazel called to apologize, and had never met face to face.
In Counts’ second picture two middle-aged women, one black, one white, are standing side by side, smiling like friends reconnecting at a high school reunion.
Incredibly, against all odds, that is what they became — friends.
“In no time, we were old friends,” Hazel told a reporter. They went to flower shows together. They went to a spa together. They gave interviews and appeared in documentaries. They spoke about racial reconciliation. They appeared on “Oprah.”
Sadly, the friendship didn’t last.
Elizabeth came to distrust Hazel’s “conversion.”
“I know the difference,” she said, “between an apology and someone who is just trying to make themselves feel good.” Hazel felt unfairly attacked.
David Margolick, author of “Elizabeth and Hazel,” said that the relationship between the two women is a metaphor for race relations in America.
“New barriers have replaced the old; while black suspicions remain, now whites feel, in addition to their residual prejudices, maligned, belittled, aggrieved.”
As the publication date of his book approached in 2011, Margolick tried to get Elizabeth and Hazel to sit for yet another photo, but Hazel wasn’t interested. The publisher had to settle for individual pictures of the two women.
Nonetheless, reflecting on his last conversations with Elizabeth and Hazel, Margolick remained hopeful: “Each, I noticed, teared up at references to the other. Perhaps, when no one is looking — or taking any pictures —they’ll yet come together again. And if they can, maybe, so too, can we.”