The image is startling, even horrifying. A dignified, well-dressed black girl walks calmly through a gauntlet of white people trying to prevent her from integrating Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Directly behind her is a white girl with hate in her eyes and venom spewing from her mouth. The date is Sept. 4, 1957.
Along with other news photos conveying the drama of the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s - from Sheriff Bull Connor’s ferocious police dogs attacking black demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., to Martin Luther King Jr.’s triumphant “I Have a Dream’’ oratory in the nation’s capital - this one in Little Rock would remain an iconic image fixed in our collective memory. It would also haunt the lives of the two people pictured.
“Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock’’ is their story, from 1957 to the present. It is surprising, disturbing, occasionally inspiring, often baffling, and ultimately sad.
Author David Margolick first approached the women in 1999; he had been astonished to learn that they had become friends. Somewhat reluctantly, because they’d been interviewed so often and felt the portraits weren’t always fair, they agreed to another round of interviews that would result in a feature story for Vanity Fair.
An expanded version of that article, this book embodies the virtues and vices of the genre. At its best, “Elizabeth and Hazel’’ recreates the tumult of that moment and unveils its ironies. Elizabeth Eckford, for instance, was so shy and studious that she had to be talked into becoming one of the black pioneers, the so-called “Little Rock Nine.’’ And she was alone that day only because her family lacked a telephone and was not informed about the plan for the group to gather before heading to school. Hence, the stark loneliness that made such a breathtaking photo.
On the other side, Hazel Bryan was a popular, fun-loving teenager who hadn’t planned to harass anyone but got caught up in the frenzy of the moment. Nothing in her background pointed toward it. Because of the photo’s notoriety, her parents soon transferred her to a school outside town, so she played no part in the subsequent punching, shoving, kicking, and name-calling that made Elizabeth’s Central High experience so hellish.
As the photo spread across the world, Elizabeth was transformed into the poster girl for black dignity, Hazel for white bigotry. But by 1963, a chastened, weeping Hazel called Elizabeth and apologized, and Elizabeth accepted. No one else knew.
Margolick doesn’t explain Hazel’s remarkable transformation. A high school dropout who married at 16, she somehow broke free from Protestant fundamentalism and began to see the world anew. Always a free spirit, she dove into New Age spirituality and took up belly dancing. More astounding, she began escorting black teens on hiking trips and counseling black single mothers. She consorted with peace and environmental advocates.
Like Hazel, Elizabeth also embarked on an unlikely journey, spiraling downward. This onetime bright, ambitious girl dropped out of colleges, attempted suicide several times, battled depression, was declared a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, and struggled to hold jobs.
By 1997, on the 40th anniversary of Central High’s integration, however, Elizabeth had pulled herself together with the help of medication and agreed to a new photo with Hazel. At the latter’s urging, they began to meet for shopping trips and visits to garden shops. They became friends. As Margolick points out, they had a lot in common. Both were more inquisitive and introspective than people around them, craved good conversation, and neither quite fit in anywhere.
Their relationship proved a boon not only to themselves but to their city. “If such archetypal antagonists could reconcile,’’ in the author’s paraphrase of local news coverage, “then nothing was impossible.’’
It’s easy to see why Hazel seems more likable. In Margolick’s telling, she’s upbeat and enthusiastic, always trying to nudge her friend toward happiness, while Elizabeth’s unhealed wounds make her sour, moody, and unpredictable.
In the end, the weight of their iconic status - news articles, more anniversaries, and appearances on “Oprah’’ and at the White House - became too burdensome. Hazel wanted to move on. “There’s more to me than one moment,’’ she insisted. Elizabeth demanded deeper atonement for past injustices. The friendship unraveled.
The real mystery at this book’s heart, which Margolick hasn’t manage to plumb, is Hazel. But Elizabeth remains opaque, too. Because he hasn’t been able to penetrate his subjects’ inner sanctums - their mistrust of journalists must be enormous - they still seem frozen in symbolism, not quite the unique individuals we know they are.
Still, this is an amazing story, told with brio if not depth. “Elizabeth and Hazel’’ represents, in microcosm, the debilitating power of race that remains powerful 50 years after that photo.Dan Cryer is author of “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church,’’ being published this month. He can be reached at www.dancryer.org.