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.

Hazel Bryan and Elizabeth Eckford, Little Rock, Ark., September 1957.
Hazel Bryan and Elizabeth Eckford, Little Rock, Ark., September 1957.

Photograph by Will Counts/ Indiana University Archives.

This is adapted from David Margolick’s new book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock.

Who doesn’t know that face?

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It’s the face of a white girl—she was only 15 years old, but everyone always thinks her older than that, and judges her accordingly—shouting at an equally familiar, iconic figure: a sole black school girl dressed immaculately in white, her mournful and frightened eyes hidden behind sunglasses, clutching her books and walking stoically away from Little Rock Central High School on Sept. 4, 1957—the date when, in many ways, desegregation first hit the South where it hurt.

It’s all in that white girl’s face, or so it has always appeared. In those raging eyes and clenched teeth is the hatred and contempt for an entire race, and the fury of a civilization fighting tenaciously to preserve its age-old, bigoted way of life. You know what the white girl’s saying, but you can’t print it all: commands to get out and go home —“home” being the place from which her forebears had been dragged in chains centuries earlier. That what that white girl was actually doing that day was more grabbing attention for herself than making any statement of deep conviction doesn’t really matter. Of anyone with that face, you simply assume the worst. You also assume she is beyond redemption, especially if, symbolically, she is more useful as is than further understood or evolved.

So how is it that fifty-five years later, it is this same white girl—even more than the black girl—who feels aggrieved, who considers herself the victim of intolerance, who has retreated into embittered sadness? How can it be that she, who was so prominent at the joyous 40th anniversary of the events in Little Rock, celebrated by President Bill Clinton among many others, was invisible at the 50th, and ever since?   

The black girl is Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine. Moments earlier, she’d tried to enter Central High School, only to be repeatedly rebuffed by soldiers from the Arkansas National Guard placed there by Gov. Orval Faubus. A mob baying at her heels, Elizabeth is making her way, fearfully but determinately, toward what she hoped would be the relative safety of the bus stop a block away.

111011_CB_Book_2WomenofLittleRock

The face belongs to Hazel Bryan. Hazel, the daughter of a disabled war veteran, was largely apolitical, even on matters of race; while sharing the prejudices of her parents, she cared far more about dancing and dating. Being in that crowd that morning, making a ruckus, out-shouting all of her friends, was a way of getting noticed, and far more exciting than going into class. She’d thought nothing would come of what she’d done, and nothing ever would have had she not been captured in mid-epithet by Will Counts, a young photographer for the Arkansas Democrat.

If anyone in the picture, which reverberated throughout the world that day and in history books ever since, should feel aggrieved, it’s of course Elizabeth Eckford. What Counts had captured both symbolized and anticipated the ordeals that Elizabeth, a girl of unusual sensitivity and intelligence, would face in her lifetime. First came the hellish year she and other black students endured inside Central, and then decades in which the trauma from that experience, plus prejudice, poverty, family tragedy, and her own demons kept her from realizing her extraordinary potential.

With enormous courage and resiliency, Elizabeth ultimately made a life for herself and has largely come to peace with her past. Paradoxically, it’s been Hazel, who has led a life of far greater financial and familial security, who now feels wounded and angry. Someone who once embodied racial intolerance feels victimized by another form of prejudice, in which good deeds go unappreciated, forgiveness cannot possibly be won, and public statements of contrition breed only resentment and ridicule.

Concerned over her sudden notoriety, only days after the infamous photograph appeared, Hazel’s parents transferred her from Central to a rural high school closer to home. She never spent a day in school with the Little Rock Nine and played no part in the horrors to which administrators, either lax or actually sympathetic to a small group of segregationist troublemakers, allowed them to be subjected. And she left her new school at 17, got married, and began a family.

But Hazel Bryan Massery was curious, and reflective. Tuning in her primitive Philco with the rabbit ears her father had bought her, she heard the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and saw those black protesters getting hot coffee and ketchup poured on their heads at segregated lunch counters or being routed by fire hoses and German shepherds. Such scenes brought home to her the reality of racial hatred, and of her own small but conspicuous contribution to it. One day, she realized, her children would learn that that snarling girl in their history books was their mother. She realized she had an account to settle.

Author David Margolick in front of Little Rock Central High School.
Author David Margolick in front of Little Rock Central High School

Photograph by Lawrence-Schiller.

Sometime in 1962 or 1963—no cameras recorded the scene, and she didn’t mark anything down—Hazel, sitting in the trailer in rural Little Rock in which she and her family now lived, picked up the Little Rock directory, and looked under “Eckford.” Then, without telling her husband or pastor or anyone else, she dialed the number. Between sobs, she told Elizabeth that she was that girl, and how sorry she was. Elizabeth was gracious. The conversation lasted a minute, if that. In the South, in the ’60s, how much more did a white girl and a black girl have to say to one another?

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