The Stranger-Than-Fiction History of the Civil Rights Era’s Most Famous Photograph

The history behind current events.
Oct. 11 2011 2:12 PM

The Many Lives of Hazel Bryan

In the most famous photo of the Civil Rights era, she was the face of white bigotry. You’ll never believe what she did with the rest of her life.

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Still, Hazel never stopped thinking about the picture and making amends for it. She severed what had been her ironclad ties to an intolerant church. She taught mothering skills to unmarried black women, and took underprivileged black teenagers on field trips. She frequented the black history section at the local Barnes & Noble, buying books by Cornel West and Shelby Steele and the companion volume to Eyes on the Prize. She’d argue with her mother on racial topics, defending relatives who’d intermarried.

Secretly, Hazel always hoped some reporter would track her down and write about how she’d changed. But it didn’t happen on its own, and she did nothing to make it happen. Instead, again and again, there was the picture. Anniversary after anniversary, Martin Luther King Day after Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month after Black History Month, it just kept popping up. The world of race relations was changing, but to the world, she never did.

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Finally, on the 40th anniversary of Central’s desegregation in 1997, Will Counts returned to Little Rock and arranged for Elizabeth and Hazel to pose for him again. Hazel was thrilled, Elizabeth, curious. Their first meeting was predictably awkward, but the new picture, showing the two women smiling in front of Central, revealed only the barest hint of that. It all but took over the next day’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and very nearly upstaged President Clinton’s speech the next day, in which he worked in a reference to them both. Soon, a poster-sized version of the picture was available: “Reconciliation,” it said. Everyone rejoiced; Thanks to Elizabeth and Hazel, Little Rock, maligned for 40 years, bathed in instant absolution.

Then, quietly, Elizabeth and Hazel discovered something quite miraculous: They actually liked each other. For all their differences—Elizabeth was better-read, Hazel’s life far better-balanced—they shared a good deal. Both were introspective, skeptical, a bit isolated; neither fit in anywhere, including in their own families. They visited one another’s homes, took trips together, spoke to schools and civic groups. In the process, Hazel helped pull Elizabeth out of her shell, then to blossom. Unemployed, on mental health disability for years, Elizabeth soon returned to work, as a probation officer for a local judge. Two years after they’d first met, the pair even appeared on Oprah.

Winfrey hadn’t bothered hiding her incredulity, even disdain, that day: Of all people, these two were now friends? But as rude as both felt her to have been, she’d been on to something. The improbable relationship had already begun to unravel.

A student of, and stickler for, history, Elizabeth looked for—and, she thought, spotted—holes in Hazel’s story. How, for instance, could Hazel have undertaken something so cruel so casually, then remembered so little about it afterward? And why, after all these years, did she absolve her parents from any blame? At their joint appearances, Elizabeth could treat Hazel impatiently, peremptorily. Meantime, others in the Little Rock Nine either shunned Hazel or complained of her presence at various commemorations.

But resentment came as well from whites, particularly whites who’d attended Central, particularly those from better families, who’d thought that, even by always looking the other way, they’d done absolutely nothing wrong during those dark days and, truth be told, considered Hazel and her ilk “white trash.” Forty years earlier she’d given them all a black eye; now, she was back, more conspicuous, and embarrassing, than ever. At a reunion she foolishly, or naively, attended, she felt their cold shoulder, and could hear their snickers. None of them had ever apologized for anything they’d done or not done, and, as far as Hazel could tell, they’d been none the worse for their silence.

Ultimately, it grew too much for Hazel. She cut off ties with Elizabeth—for her, Sept. 11, 2011 marked another anniversary: 10 years had passed since they’d last spoken—and stopped making public appearances with her. Her interviews with me—granted only with great reluctance—will, she says, be her last. When I asked the two women to pose together one last time (Elizabeth turned 70 last Tuesday; Hazel will in January) Elizabeth agreed; Hazel would not. Hazel was poised to vote for Obama in 2008; after all, even her own mother did. But so deep was her hurt that she found some excuse not to.

So the famous photograph of 1957 takes on additional meaning: the continuing chasm between the races and the great difficulty, even among people of good will, to pull off real racial reconciliation. But shuttling back and forth between them, I could see that for all their harsh words—over the past decade, they’ve only dug in their heels—they still missed one another. Each, I noticed, teared up at references to the other. Perhaps, when no one is looking—or taking any pictures—they’ll yet come together again. And if they can, maybe, so too, can we.

Buy David Margolick’s new book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock.

David Margolick is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. His latest book is Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

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