All of us know this picture: the iconic shot of brave Elizabeth Eckford trying to walk to Little Rock Central High School after Brown vs. Board of Education ended school segregation. This picture was taken on September 4, 1957. This wasn’t the day Elizabeth entered the school; this was the day she was turned away by the Arkansas National Guard. The day she finally walked into the school building was September 23, but she and 8 other African American students were chased out of school that day by an angry mob. On this day 55 years ago, September 24, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in the United States Army to escort and protect the group that came to be known as The Little Rock Nine.
The story – and the image above – are indelibly etched on the American collective consciousness (or should I say collective conscience?). If you search for Elizabeth Eckford on Wikipedia, this is the picture you will find. But did you also know that if you search for Hazel Bryan Massery on Wikipedia, this is also the picture you will find? Hazel Bryan Massery is the girl behind Elizabeth, shouting at her.
I mention this because while the drama of the photograph is well-known, it is less well-known what happened in the years and decades after this seminal moment. The short version is that in the following months and years, Hazel became increasingly wracked with guilt about her actions that day. In 1963, she tracked down Elizabeth and called her to apologize. During the 40th anniversary celebration of Central High School’s integration, Hazel and Elizabeth met again and at that point struck up something of a friendship. What came after is complicated, and in some ways represents the challenges of racial relations we still face. But parts of the story are inspiring. And parts of the story make me wonder if the glare of the media – and all its attendant pressures – hadn’t been focused on these two adult women as they tried to forge a reconciliation 40 years later, could they have formed a more authentic bond?
If you want to know more about the story, there is a book about it called Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock. There is also an interesting NPR piece about it, including an interview with the book’s author. In addition, the NPR piece offers a brief introduction to the psychological repercussions of the original incident; perhaps unsurprisingly Elizabeth suffered PTSD as a result of her experiences.