The photo is still mesmerizing after all these years.
Elizabeth Eckford walks stoically toward Little Rock Central High School. She looks neither right nor left. She looks straight ahead.
Behind her, the hostile crowd follows. Hazel Massery has her mouth wide open, screaming at Eckford when the shutter clicks on Will Counts’ camera.
David Margolick, a well-known writer who currently contributes to Newsweek, came to Little Rock in 1999 to work on a story about Paula Jones for Vanity Fair. It’s a story that never ran. On that trip, however, Margolick stopped by the visitors’ center at Central High. And as it had done for so many thousands of others through the years, the photo of Elizabeth and Hazel drew him in.
Margolick, the author of four books, decided to begin a book based on that photo. He has worked on the project on and off for a decade, visiting Little Rock numerous times and interviewing dozens of people who were on the grounds of the school during those crazy late summer and early fall days of 1957.
Margolick has spent many hours interviewing Eckford and Massery. The two women reportedly have opened up to him like no interviewer before. Massery transferred from Central High soon after the photo ran. She eventually dropped out of high school and got married at age 17.
Her widely publicized apology to Eckford in 1997 was the subject of a lengthy story on the front page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Less known was the fact that she had called Eckford in 1962 or 1963 to apologize. She wasn’t looking for publicity. She told no one at the time that she had made the call.
Still, according to Margolick, the photo is “an image she wears indelibly” for life.
Margolick thinks his book will be out in about a year. He describes the past decade of his life as “a prolonged exercise in trying to figure out what I would have done if I had been in Little Rock in 1957. I don’t know the answer to that. … I never wanted this book to be easy. I never wanted to listen to the conventional wisdom or follow the conventional story lines.”
Margolick, a legal reporter and later a law columnist for The New York Times from 1981-96, said he understands that there’s fatigue in Little Rock over the continued news stories and books about the events of 1957. He said he also understands the “kind of resentment” some feel toward what they believe to be “know-it-all Yankees who come here and past judgment decades later.”
He says of his work on the book: “I’ve tried to do it with a lot of conscientiousness and also a lot of humility.”
He believes history will judge Hazel Massery more kindly than it will judge many others.
“It’s easy to make mistakes when you’re 16 years old,” Margolick says. It’s harder to forgive people in their 60s and 70s who won’t acknowledge their mistakes.”
He readily acknowledges that Little Rock was, in a sense, a vicitim of its own progressive ways — a city where the school board decided to move forward with integration much more quickly than the school boards in most Southern cities.
Though others are weary of the subject, I look forward to the book. Margolick, who covered culture, the media and politics for Vanity Fair and Conde Nast Portfolio (which went out of business last year) after leaving the Times, is a talented researcher, reporter and writer. He will do the subject justice.
I just wish Will Counts were still around. Counts, who took the famous photo for the Arkansas Democrat, died of cancer in 2001 after years of teaching photojournalism at the University of Indiana.
On that day in September 1957, Counts was working in the darkroom, developing the photos of two veteran photographers who were out on other assignments. Suddenly, he heard the city editor scream for him to get to Central High because “all high is breaking loose.”
Fred Petrucelli wrote this in a 2007 Log Cabin Democrat feature on Counts: “Counts, dressed in nondescript clothing, blended in with the crowd gathered at the school. Photographers from major newspapers around the country were conspicuous, many dressed in coats and ties and carrying large cameras. They had the appearance of outsiders, and many were set upon by the unruly throng. Counts moved around and through the mass of humanity quite unobserved. His photos became snapshots of history.”
Counts himself would write: “Eckford’s imperturbable walk through the mob had become a slow-motion cinema verite memory. I still find it difficult to believe that this display of racial hatred was happening in front of my high school and my camera.”
His photographs shocked the nation, including the one of black photographer and reporter Alex Wilson of Memphis being hit and kicked.
In the audience listening to Margolick speak earlier this week at the Clinton School of Public Service was Julian Bond, the civil rights leader and politician who headed the NAACP from 1998 until earlier this year. Bond, who attended Morehouse College in Atlanta and was a member of the only class taught by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
It seemed fitting that he was here Monday to hear Margolick — here in the city that had no desire to be the focus of the early civil rights movement but nonetheless earned its place in history.
The story of Elizabeth and Hazel is an important part of that chapter in our country’s history. I hope Margolick tells it well.