The lives of Hazel Bryan, center, and Elizabeth Eckford, front right, became forever entwined after this photo was taken outside Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
It’s one of the most iconic visual documents of the civil rights era: A young black student walks to school, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses and her books clutched to her chest like armor against the menacing crowd around her. Behind her, a white female student sneers in exaggerated revulsion. Photographed during the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, the powerful black-and-white image ran in newspapers across the country, starkly illustrating the tensions of integration.
Those two students, Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan, are the subjects of “Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock,” carefully written and exhaustively researched by David Margolick, who will speak Sunday at Politics & Prose. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of books about singer Billie Holiday and boxer Joe Louis, Margolick spent more than a decade traveling back and forth to Arkansas and interviewing the women, who are now in their early 70s.
Their story is surprising and even moving, but also tragically open-ended. In the early 1960s, Bryan — by then a young mother haunted by her actions as the jeering white student in the photo — called Eckford to apologize. The two made amends and eventually became close friends, even traveling and speaking publicly together.
Around the time Margolick began working on the book in the late 1990s, however, a rift had grown between the women, thanks to the unique pressures they faced from both the black and white communities in Little Rock. “The misunderstandings between them reveal the way that racial chasms can exist even between two well-meaning people,” he says. “There are still real impediments to reconciliation in this country.”
While he made no attempts to push the pair to repair their friendship, Margolick acknowledges that their estrangement prevents any tidy readings of their story. There is no happy ending — at least not yet. “This was not a story that could be sugar-coated,” he says. “I wanted it to stand for itself, although I would have loved to have seen the two of them get together again. I think the two of them have a very profound connection still, but they haven’t talked to one another in 10 years.”
Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sun., 5 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)