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.