19 March 2021 – THE STORY BEHIND THE ICONIC PHOTOGRAPH
THE STORY BEHIND
THE ICONIC PHOTOGRAPH
The photograph of Elizabeth making her way to school while a white mob is trailing behind her and hurling insults has become an iconic image for the civil rights movement.
The story of Eckford and the girl behind her, Hazel Bryan whose face is contorted mid-shout is no less than fascinating. In 1957, Eckford was one of the first nine African-American students to enroll in the all-white central high school of Little Rock, Arkansas – a group that would later be known as the Little Rock Nine. It did not go smoothly, as the infamous photo reveals. There was a whole mob trying to prevent Elizabeth from entering the school, but Hazel was the one caught most vividly on camera.
Benjamin Fine of The New York Times later described her, she was “screaming, just hysterical, just like one of these Elvis Presley hysterical deals, where these kids are fainting with hysteria”. After the photo made headlines, Hazel’s parents decided to pull her out of Central and send her to a different school. Over the years, as she learned more about African-American history, Hazel started feeling remorseful and ashamed at the way she behaved that day.
In 1963 she tracked down Elizabeth and called her to apologize. Elizabeth briefly accepted the apology, and the two did not speak again for years. The year 1997 marked the 40-year anniversary of the Little Rock Central High School integration. Then-president Bill Clinton, who is also an Arkansas native, held a big ceremony noting the event. Will Counts, the photographer responsible for the famous photo, asked Eckford and Bryan if they would be willing to pose again for a second photograph and they both agreed.
Reconciled after 40 years, the two women discovered they had much in common and struck an unlikely friendship. They started attending events and touring schools together, giving talks about race and tolerance. They both received much criticism for their relationship – Elizabeth for being too naive and forgiving, and Hazel for not being sincere.