Americans relish the cycle of public apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It makes us feel cleansed, as if deplorable events never happened and, even though they did, that we are the better for having recognized and expiated them. Confession runs deep in our culture; absolution, too. As a result, almost no offense is beyond repair, and the more public the admission, the more complete the pardon. The ritual is often carefully choreographed and, at its pinnacle, becomes an Oprah moment.
Not all acts, of course, can so easily be absolved. When a nation apologizes for slavery or genocide, who offers forgiveness? In 2005 the Senate apologized for its failure to enact antilynching legislation. (Twenty senators did not sign a statement supporting the measure, many of them from states, like Mississippi, where lynching occurred.) Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thought the act "better late than never." But James Cameron, then 91 and a survivor of an attempted lynching in Marion, Ind., in 1930, reminded everyone that the apology "won't bring anyone back."
These tropes of apology and forgiveness become especially animated in discussing the civil-rights era. Those who fought for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s are aging, and recent setbacks in racial and social justice are disturbing. It makes Americans want all the more to believe that the battles were not for naught, that beliefs and practices have changed, past injustices been rectified, and a brighter future lies ahead.
David Margolick's engrossing new work, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock (Yale University Press), takes up these issues directly. Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is the author of several books, including, with Hilton Als, Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song (Vintage, 2001), and Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink (Knopf, 2005). In his new work, he peers into the lives of two women forever framed in a photograph taken on September 4, 1957, on the first day of what would be a tumultuous year at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., as nine black students sought to desegregate the all-white school.
Elizabeth Eckford was almost 16 years old and entering 11th grade. From an early age, Elizabeth was a loner, preferring the company of books to peers. She wanted to be a lawyer one day, and the better facilities and opportunities available at Central, she hoped, would make whatever difficulties she faced worth the desegregation struggle.
That morning, Elizabeth rode a public bus to school, but as she tried to enter, the Arkansas National Guard and an angry mob confronted her. An army of news media covered the scene, and at least three photographers, Will Counts of the Arkansas Democrat, Johnny Jenkins of UPI, and Lloyd Dinkins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, focused on her. Each captured the moment as she walked expressionless, head up, clutching her notebook, while a crowd followed behind and at least one angry young white protester, her face contorted with hate, spewed invective.
It is easy to mistake the heckler as an adult, one of many mothers in the crowd infuriated by desegregation. But she is Hazel Bryan, age 15 and a half. Hazel adhered to the conventions of the segregated South, though her musical tastes ran more toward Johnny Mathis than Elvis Presley. At her church, the preacher made racial matters clear: "The birds don't mix; why should the races?"
Counts's and Jenkins's photographs were reprinted around the world. (Dinkins's were not run at the time.) Elizabeth, who never wanted attention, became the heroine of the story of desegregation; Hazel, who loved being on stage, was frozen in time as the contorted face of racial hatred. "It reminds me of the howling mob that crucified Christ," commented one Arkansan in a letter to the Democrat. Hazel's parents withdrew her from the school. It would be 40 years before the two women would again be seen together.
Margolick's narrative intensifies as he turns to the post-high-school lives of Elizabeth and Hazel. Elizabeth survived a school year filled with daily torments and indignities, and the embarrassment of being hailed as a hero by civil-rights organizations. Shy and fragile, she shattered, and, in the summer of 1959, after a year spent at home being tutored because Central had shut down, she tried to commit suicide. Although she did not abandon civil rights (she attended the March on Washington in 1963), Elizabeth joined the Army, where she worked as a pay clerk and sought to escape her past.
And yet she kept returning to it. She participated in ceremonies to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools; then she moved back to her old house in Little Rock. By 1980, she was on disability, diagnosed with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. "It will never be over for me," she told a reporter in 1982. In 1987 she joined the other members of the Little Rock Nine with Bill Clinton at the governor's mansion to commemorate the 30th anniversary of that day at Central.
In the interim, she had heard from, and met, Hazel Bryan, now Hazel Massery. Hazel had managed to retreat from the supernova of publicity in ways that Elizabeth never could. In 1958 she married her high-school boyfriend and soon thereafter gave birth to two sons. She became introspective and contemplated her children's future. In 1963 she called Elizabeth. She told her she was the girl in the picture, said she was sorry for what she had done, and started sobbing. Elizabeth accepted her apology. Hazel, who hadn't even been at Central for the school year, was far from the worst of the offenders.
That private apology no doubt helped Hazel, and she became increasingly active in social work and counseling, particularly with black teenagers. Hazel also wanted her place in history acknowledged. With the 40th anniversary looming, when reporters located her, she was eager to play the role of true penitent, to confess her sins publicly, and to be forgiven.
That moment came on September 22, 1997, and the photographer Counts helped to stage it. His new photo of Hazel and Elizabeth reunited, arms behind one another's backs, made headlines. Here was proof that the civil-rights movement had not gone backward. Here was proof of human progress and the power of forgiveness. That picture became a poster, "Reconciliation." Suddenly the photographic past became the living present, and the two middle-aged women found comfort in a new, but uneven, friendship.
The story has no Hollywood ending. It is characterized by mutual warmth and support, as well as by the strains of traveling the lecture circuit and appearing together. Both women profited financially from the narrative of apology and forgiveness. Elizabeth grew suspicious of Hazel's desires for the limelight; Hazel was perplexed by Elizabeth's continued resentments. The public chastised them both, seeing the pas de deux, in Margolick's words, as "a triumph of sentimentality, wishful thinking, and marketing over new reality." Even Oprah couldn't tolerate it. She had the two on her television program in 1999, but she saw Hazel as an opportunist and Elizabeth as naïve and quickly dispatched them. Soon it all unraveled; now the two do not speak.
Margolick is the latest interloper not only to try to write the history of these two women but also to affect it by seeking to get them together again, asking if they would pose for another picture. But he seems uninterested in analyzing the role journalists play in stage-managing the stories they produce. Reporters, too, adore the narrative of apology and forgiveness and have, at times, facilitated not only its dissemination but also its creation. Margolick admits in an endnote to having compensated Elizabeth, who requested payment, for cooperating with him. That does not necessarily make the account counterfeit, but it does mean that he needs to be more of a character in the book than he allows himself to be.
The images of Elizabeth also raise questions about photographic truth and documentary expression. Much work has been done on these issues, most recently by Errol Morris in Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography (Penguin Press). In a chapter on the Abu Ghraib photographs—which continues Morris's work on the subject from Standard Operating Procedure (Penguin, 2008), his earlier book (written with Philip Gourevitch) and film—Morris shows repeatedly that we believe first and see second, and that only with deep contextualization can we locate some facsimile of the truth. For example, the image of the caped and hooded detainee standing on a box in Abu Ghraib that so horrified the world captures a common technique for breaking a prisoner's spirit. The electrical wires were not connected, and the prisoner became a favorite of the guards. "Photographs," Morris writes, "attract false beliefs the way flypaper attracts flies."
The depiction of the young Hazel, in particular, deserve similar scrutiny. This is not to say that Hazel did not scream racial epithets at a stoic-looking but frightened Elizabeth. But we cannot fully understand how the photograph was received without viewing the original issue of the Democrat, which included multiple images on the front page and cropped the full-frame negative of Hazel shrieking. Counts took two dozen other shots that day, and his entire sequence of Elizabeth's walk is available in his A Life Is More Than a Moment: The Desegregation of Little Rock's Central High (Indiana University Press, 1999). That sequence shows girls marching behind Elizabeth who were not screaming, reporters included among protesters, and, at one point, a police officer seemingly controlling the crowd. The situation was undoubtedly tense and ugly, but also more nuanced than Margolick—and time—remember.
In regard to another photograph, one of Elizabeth seemingly talking with white students during a break, Margolick confesses in an endnote that "the only conclusion to be drawn from these photographs is that they offer no conclusion at all." But then why are the other images considered revealing and trustworthy?
All this matters because the cycle of wrong, apology, and forgiveness stems not only from words spoken but also from actions captured in images that are used as evidence of wrongdoing: Think, for example, of Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates apologizing to Rodney King for the beating captured on film. Or the U.S. Army spokesman offering an apology for photographs of soldiers posing with dead Afghans.
Images stick in ways that words sometimes do not. They offer seemingly indisputable evidence of wrongdoing; therefore, merely by being reprinted, they declare, "This happened." Whatever the explanation—whether an image misrepresents the moment, must be viewed in context, doesn't really show misconduct—it captures our attention and commands redress.
Apologies for the malefactions of the civil-rights era seem particularly abundant in recent years. In 2004 the Lexington Herald-Leader apologized for its lack of coverage of the civil-rights movement—and for not printing photographs of a lunch-counter sit-in. In 2009 a former Klansman, posing with a picture of himself in a mob in 1960, apologized to Rep. John Lewis for having beaten him bloody when he stepped off a freedom-riders bus. The congressman forgave his assailant.
There is nothing wrong in doing so, unless with forgiving we start forgetting, unless with remembering we start simplifying. Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan are part of the complicated and largely hidden history of white and black women in the civil-rights era. Recounting that history seems all the more important given the runaway success of The Help (Amy Einhorn Books, 2009), by Kathryn Stockett. The novel tells the story of black domestic workers and their white employers, and its success can be attributed in part to its stereotypical depictions of racist whites, sassy blacks, and a young white heroine who awakens to civil rights. "The problem with The Help," point out the historians Jim Downs and Thavolia Glymph in the Huffington Post, "is that it tells the story of black oppression as a story of good versus evil in the way Sunday school lessons are taught to 5-year-olds." That the recent film based on the novel was a box-office triumph only underscores our cultural craving for easy redemption.
Elizabeth and Hazel serves to explode the simplifications of The Help and exposes the limits of apology and forgiveness. There is nothing about which to feel upbeat, no easy moral, no simple narrative. The story is a corrective to our collective fantasy that we can rectify the past. The moment captured on September 4, 1957, was grotesque and irredeemable. It still is.
Louis P. Masur is chair of the American-studies program at Trinity College, in Connecticut, and the author of The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph that Shocked the Nation (Bloomsbury Press, 2008) and the forthcoming Lincoln's Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union (Harvard University Press, 2012).