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Author seeks history through an iconic photo.

click to enlarge WORTH SEVERAL THOUSAND WORDS: The famous photo of Elizabeth Eckford; with David Margolick today.
  • WORTH SEVERAL THOUSAND WORDS: The famous photo of Elizabeth Eckford; with David Margolick today.

Writer David Margolick has spent a good bit of the last 10 years looking at a photograph.

You've probably seen the picture. On Sept. 4, 1957, high-school student Elizabeth Eckford — a shy girl who would eventually change America as one of the Little Rock Nine — was turned away from entering Central High School in Little Rock because she was black. As she walked away, carrying her books, she was trailed by a scowling mob of segregationist whites. In the middle of the crowd was Hazel Bryan, a student at Central who was about Elizabeth's age. In the photograph, Bryan — brows like thunderheads, her face an agony of hate — is screaming taunts at Eckford's back. At that moment, Arkansas Democrat photographer Will Counts tripped his shutter.  

Though Margolick was familiar with the iconic photo, he saw it through new eyes in 1999, when he came to Little Rock to work on a magazine article for Vanity Fair about the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. While that turned out to be a bust, during a trip to the visitors center at what has become the Central High School National Historic Site, he saw a poster-sized reproduction of the Counts photo. Nearby was another image of Hazel Bryan (by then Hazel Bryan Massery) and Elizabeth Eckford standing together, reconciled.

“Of course, that picture of Elizabeth walking to school was part of my consciousness and had been part of my consciousness for many years,” Margolick said. “It was sort of etched in my mind. And here was the second picture of the two of them together. I thought:  This is really a story, unlike Paula Jones.”

Though Hazel Massery wouldn't agree to an interview in 1999, Margolick spoke at length with Eckford, and eventually wrote a story about the photograph for Vanity Fair online. The piece convinced Massery to talk with him. Margolick said the inclusion of her side of the story gave him the “symmetry” the Vanity Fair story had been lacking, and he decided to write a book. Margolick is currently finishing up the manuscript, which will be published by Yale University Press.

A large part of Margolick's research has focused on the stories of Massery and Eckford, but the book will also delve more deeply into the circumstances surrounding the photo, including the fruits of what he calls his “infuriating” search to identify the bystanders who were there that day. Though over a dozen people were captured on film by photographers during the incident (as Margolick points out, there are actually two famous photographs of the incident, one taken by UPI photographer Johnny Jenkins; the more iconic by Democrat photographer Will Counts) only a handful of those people are known. Margolick even took out a newspaper ad in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette seeking information about those in the picture, but got little response. He is still looking for information and hopes this story might produce some more leads. Write him at margolick@aol.com

Everyone has an obligation to history, Margolick said, and the story should be told in all its complexity. “Hazel came forward and apologized, and almost no one else ever did,” Margolick said. “I think that's very telling and very damning. Many other people are living their lives contentedly and are willing to fob off all the blame on Hazel… I'm not judging anyone for what they did then. I'm in no position to do that. But I'm judging them for refusing to talk about it now. That's very much in their control.”

As an example of why the whole story of the photograph needs to be uncovered and told, Margolick points out a girl in a black dress in the Counts photo. This girl, Margolick said, was Sammie Dean Parker, who he called the ringleader of the segregationist students. Parker was walking alongside Hazel Bryan that day, shouting taunts. But at the exact moment the photo was taken, Parker's father, who was also in the crowd, called to her, and she turned.

“That was the moment that Will Counts clicked the shutter,” Margolick said. “So by a quirk of history, Hazel is there, exposed, shouting. But Sammie Dean, you can only see the back of her head. So no one ever talks about her. This is the randomness of history.”

Asked about photographs and why they can haunt us, Margolick said that a photo has a tendency to crystallize a moment, allowing us to dissect everything in frame. Eckford, he said, told him once that photographs clarify things. He's become a believer in that over the past 10 years.

“There's all this revisionism now [about the Central High Crisis], about how the things weren't so bad, and most of the kids were all right, and that they were welcomed into Central High School. There's a certain kind of slippage in history … as the memories get foggier, there's this tendency to soften the edges of history.”

But, Margolick said, “if you're tempted to feel that things weren't so bad, all you have to do is look at that picture. It's all there. The picture is a defense against revisionism. There's a limit to how much denying you can do if that picture's around.” 

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