The story of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School, shows that societal change comes at great personal cost
David Margolick's unforgettable new book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, takes as its touchstone a famous civil rights-era photograph. In it, a black teenaged girl, tall and slender in a pristine white outfit and dark glasses, walks ahead of a screaming mob of whites. Directly behind her stands a white girl, her mouth curled into an ugly sneer as she screams something at the black girl's back. The black girl was Elizabeth Eckford, one of nine students selected to integrate the previously all-white Central High School. The white girl was Hazel Bryan, whose parents would pull her out of Central and send her to a small-town school that remained all-white. Both were 15. Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery are nearing 70 now, and Margolick's book eloquently chronicles their lives since that iconic photo was taken.
Yale University Press
Margolick's book is hard to read amid reports that American public education may in fact be resegregating. Similarly painful is his sensitive take on the challenges of interracial friendships (years later, after Massery called Eckford to apologize for her role in that awful day, the two slowly, tentatively, became friends, but it was a tortured relationship). But perhaps the most excruciating sections concern what happened to Elizabeth Eckford after she was admitted to school.
As Margolick points out, within a few days, once the Little Rock Nine were finally allowed to enter Central High (protected by soldiers from the 101st airborne sent by President Eisenhower), for most observers "the story [was] triumphantly over." Newspapers quoted students and teachers who deemed the integration experiment a success. They did not report on the incessant physical, verbal, and psychological aggression Elizabeth and the others endured. From the book:
January 10: Elizabeth shoved from behind on the stairs. "I was in a hurry and this li'l ole nigger was in my way," Darlene Holloway, who was suspended, explained. January 12: Someone spits in Elizabeth's hand. January 14: Elizabeth pushed down onto stairs face forward. Comes crying to Mrs. Huckaby's office. "It's a wonder she didn't pop her teeth out on the concrete and steel," a report states. January 22: Elizabeth spat on again. January 29: Elizabeth attacked with spitballs.
When the school year was over, Margolick writes, Little Rock voters "decreed that rather than integrate, the city's public high schools would close for the 1958-59 year. (Central's football team nonetheless played a full schedule.)" Eckford, who had been an excellent student, foundered in college and after, attempting suicide and spending days in bed. Decades later, while seeking treatment for depression, a psychiatrist who recognized her name finally diagnosed her with posttraumatic stress disorder.
Her struggles, for decades after high school, form the most heartbreaking part of Margolick's book. Moving back to Little Rock after her brief military service, Eckford was seen by others as "damaged, eccentric." Black neighbors admired her heroism but also saw her as "a cautionary tale," Margolick writes. "She personified for some the price paid for integration—a price, these people had concluded, that had been too high." Slowly and amid many setbacks, she began to create a better life for herself; she went back to work in 1999 as a parole officer, after 20 years living on disability, and she began speaking about her experience at Central, mostly to students. Even 40 years later, telling her story was often exhausting, and she "would always keep a lined wastebasket and paper towels nearby, just in case she got sick." One thing Elizabeth and Hazel makes clear: there's not a day in Elizabeth Eckford's life since 1957 that wasn't deeply (and mostly disastrously) affected by what happened to her at Central High School.
The It Gets Better project, founded just over a year ago by gay author and activist Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, exists to help mitigate the damage caused by bullying and harassment of gay students. The video project reminds kids they aren't alone, and that thousands of happy, healthy, well-adjusted gay adults know just what they're going through—and that these adults (some gay, some straight allies) want them to just make it through middle school, through high school, past the bullying into a life that, they promise, will get better. It's an enormously appealing and often moving project, but there's no way to know yet whether it's had any effect in reducing either harassment or suicide prompted by it.
Still, at least it acknowledges the urgency of the problem. According to a study conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, up to 90 percent of gay teenagers experience harassment in school due to their sexual orientation. Ever since the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998, awareness of the violent hostility faced by gay youth has been increasing. Gay-straight alliances and school tolerance policies have sprung up to help support and protect gay and lesbian youth. A backlash predictably followed. Teachers in Anoka, Minnesota are currently forbidden by policy from taking any position whatsoever on sexual orientation—in effect, this means they face discipline for defending gay students against harassment. Much as many whites at Little Rock's Central High denied there was any racial problem there (Margolick profiles one white classmate of Elizabeth's who is on a crusade of sorts to prove that the black students were treated kindly), many downplay any reports of a bullying problem, much less a link to suicides. The Anoka-Hennepin school district has seen eight suicides by gay youth in the past two years. In this context, simply acknowledging the reality of students' experiences can seem like an act of courage and compassion.
As important as acknowledgment is, it's no substitute for policy. Images of Eckford walking straightbacked through townspeople crying "lynch her! lynch her!" and Arkansas National Guardsmen who refused her entrance to the school, had a tangible impact on public policy (it wasn't until he saw the images that Eisenhower finally sent federal troops to protect the integration order). The picture also served as an inspiration for future black leaders. Margolick mentions that John L. Lewis, Roger Wilkins, and Julian Bond each saw the photo as a challenge to their own courage and conscience. In effect, she was a one-person It Gets Better—only instead of an uplifting promise of a better future, her example was more of a challenge: Call it the Put Your Life on the Line project. Nobody promised Elizabeth Eckford, at 15, that life would Get Better—and though life for African Americans as whole indisputably improved due to the civil rights movement, it's hard to argue that her life followed the same trajectory.
Jim Crow racism and anti-gay prejudice aren't the same thing. And while integration and the civil rights battles have their obvious echoes in the gay rights movement, it misses the point to force them into strict parallels. But as with Elizabeth Eckford in 1957, in 2011 some children enter their schools to face what few adults could handle. Whether or not the adults can agree on much-needed policies to help them, one thing we can learn from both Eckford's story and the messages from the It Gets Better Project is that change comes with struggle, and telling the story is a vital part of the process.