AUDIE CORNISH, Host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. In 1957, a group of black students were heading to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock. The first of these Little Rock Nine was 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford. She was met by a white segregationist mob, many of them students who screamed, spat and threatened her. The news photographers and cameramen were all over that day, but one photo in particular came to represent the incident to the world. It's the picture of Elizabeth Eckford with her back to an advancing crowd. The young white woman, her face contorted in anger, is screaming at Elizabeth. That white teenager was named Hazel Bryan. President Eisenhower eventually sent federal troops to escort the teens to school. As author David Margolick writes, here is where in most documentaries the music swells and the credits roll. But Margolick picks up the story in a new book called "Elizabeth and Hazel: The Legacy of Little Rock." David Margolick joins me from NPR's New York bureau. David, welcome to the program.
DAVID MARGOLICK: Thank you so much, Audie.
CORNISH: So, what was life like for Elizabeth Eckford and the other Little Rock Nine in the immediate days and weeks following that incident?
MARGOLICK: Well, it was pretty miserable. It didn't start out that badly but it deteriorated over the course of the school year. They had things thrown at them. They were slammed into lockers. They were thrown down the stairs. They had ink thrown on their clothes. It was really quite a nightmarish experience for them because the school administrators generally looked the other way.
CORNISH: And interestingly enough, you write that the other figure in that famous photograph, Hazel Bryan, didn't actually end up going to Central High anyway.
MARGOLICK: No. That's one of the many complexities in the story. I mean, Hazel's family was concerned about her sudden notoriety after having appeared in a picture that ran all over the world. So, they pulled her out of school in a hurry and sent her to a smaller school nearer to her home. She became the symbol of white recalcitrance for that entire year, when in fact she was never in the school.
CORNISH: Your portrait of Elizabeth, because a good chunk of your book is about those weeks and months after and into early adulthood, shows someone who essentially suffered post-traumatic stress. And that's something you don't hear talked about too much because we always talk about the stoicism and sort of how people stood up in the face of adversity but not so much the fallout at the heart of these desegregation stories.
MARGOLICK: Well, that's right. I mean, I think that we have a tendency to sentimentalize these stories and try to find happy endings. And Elizabeth's story - her road was very rocky. And she had a terrible time in school that year. She was a shy girl. She had a tendency toward depression anyway, and so the events in the school that year left a very profound mark on her and really hovered over here for much of the rest of her life.
CORNISH: And meanwhile, for Hazel?
MARGOLICK: Meanwhile for Hazel, Hazel led a very conventional life. She married at 17. She dropped out of the school to which she was transferred. She had children quickly. But never forgot the picture and her role in the picture. And she grew increasingly tormented by her own role in this awful story. And one time when she was, I think, about 20 years old in 1962 or 1963, she actually picked up the phone and called Elizabeth. She tracked her down and apologized to her.
CORNISH: So, when you took up this project for the book, what was the relationship between the two women?
MARGOLICK: Well, I took up the project in 1999, which was two years after the 40th anniversary of the events in Little Rock. And as part of that 40th year celebration, the man who took the original picture of Elizabeth and Hazel, a fellow named Will Counts, had the idea of trying to reunite them. And he brought them back together again and something quite extraordinary happened. Not only did he take a picture of the two of them smiling in front of Central High School, from which they later made a poster labeled "Reconciliation," but when the cameras were turned off, Elizabeth and Hazel came to know one another. And after kind of an awkward start together, they started spending a lot of time together. They traveled together, they went on field trips together.
CORNISH: And they spoke about the events of that day together, right? I mean, they spoke before school children.
MARGOLICK: Yes, they met with school children. They told about their own respective backgrounds and experiences and what brought them to Central that day. And they were really kind of an amazing and inspiring couple.
CORNISH: David, Elizabeth Eckford actually spoke to NPR back in 2007, and she told us the story of how Hazel called her up and made an apology. But interestingly enough, she seemed wary, basically, of the relationship at this point.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
ELIZABETH ECKFORD: Unfortunately, Hazel said she had amnesia about that and she didn't remember anything. But over a period of time, when she was relaxed, I came to understand that she had contact with those students every Saturday on a local dance show and that she was part of an organized group that attacked us physically in the school.
CORNISH: Now, David Margolick, even though these women have been on tour together, they had been talking about this, I mean, they have been mulling over this incident in their minds, Elizabeth Eckford seems to be arguing that they have a difference of opinion about the nature of it.
MARGOLICK: The two of them grew increasingly estranged. I think it was really, it was principally Elizabeth's skepticism. Elizabeth felt that there was no way that Hazel could have done something so egregious so casually.
CORNISH: You do draw conclusions about race in the book, and one of them that did strike me was the idea that these women embodied race relations in 1957 but also for 2011. You think that their relationship says something as well about where we are.
MARGOLICK: Well, I do. I think that there are still great misunderstandings and distrust between the races, and I think that, you know, when two people of good faith try to make something work and it ends as sadly as this has, it says something profound about the challenge that still confronts us. But I do think that when the cameras and the reporters and everybody go away, that there is some, you know, there is a chance, there is a very profound connection between them. I think one shouldn't walk away from the book completely pessimistic. I think it's a realistic portrait of where things stand, and that they're proxies for their respective communities. But, you know, there's been a lot of progress made too, and these two women will always be joined together.
CORNISH: David Margolick. He's a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of the book "Elizabeth and Hazel." David, thank you so much for talking with me.
MARGOLICK: Thank you, Audie.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.