09/28/2007 04:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons from Little Rock

Sometimes the most interesting events at historic commemorations are not on the program. Or they don't happen at all. Thus, at the ceremonies this week marking the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, there were no photographs of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery together. In fact, Hazel didn't show up at all.

At the last major such shindig, 10 years ago, the reconciliation of Elizabeth and Hazel was, apart from then-President Clinton escorting the Little Rock Nine through Central High School's monumental wooden doors, the biggest story of all. A photograph of the two, showing them at ease and smiling at one another in front of Central, was plastered across the front page of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Their reunion was big news, but only because of the last time they appeared together on the front page, first in Little Rock and then all over the world.

That was on September 5, 1957, the day after the black schoolchildren first tried to enter Central, the first major Southern high school to be desegregated in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. The previous morning, 15-year-old Elizabeth, wearing the pleated white dress and blouse that would soon become familiar to millions of people, had been the first to arrive at Central. Rebuffed by the Arkansas national guardsmen who surrounded the school, she found herself in the street, followed by an angry, heckling mob. As Elizabeth walked ahead stoically, Hazel, also 15, fell in behind her. "Nigger, go home!" she shouted, her face contorted in hate. "Go back to Africa!"


At that instant, Will Counts, a photographer for the Arkansas Democrat, captured the two schoolgirls in what was to become one of the iconic images of the 20th Century, a picture which captured as few had before America's ragged racial divide. As utterly separate as their worlds were - as separate, really, as black and white America were in the Jim Crow South -- Elizabeth and Hazel were forever wed.

The story did not stop there. Seven years later, Hazel, by now the mother of two, tracked down Elizabeth, and apologized to her over the phone. The two then resumed their very separate and unequal ways. Then, in 1997, as the 40th anniversary approached, they finally met, and Hazel apologized again -- this time, in person, publicly. Counts was there once more to record the scene for the local paper. The photograph was then reproduced on a poster. It was labeled "Reconciliation," and it sold well at the visitors center outside Central High School, by this point a National Historic Site. High school teachers especially liked it.

The poster certainly caught my eye. Nine years ago I was in Little Rock covering an utterly inconsequential story -- Paula Jones: remember her? -- when I first saw it, and I was astonished. Here was something -- unlike the shape and pitch of Bill Clinton's penis -- truly consequential. Had these two people, these archetypes of America's racial divide, actually reconciled? How had it happened? Could it be real, and could it last? Americans love happy endings, but how could theirs have been, when, as events in Jena, La. have most recently reminded us, the chasm between whites and blacks in this country remains so wide?

Immediately, I arranged to see the two of them. And ever since, I've tried to disentangle their complicated story. The results are here. It is a sobering tale. But, amid all of the self-congratulatory commemorations, it is also a dose of racial reality.

For a short time Elizabeth and Hazel were almost inseparable. They became a kind of road show, quite literally poster children for racial healing. They began to write a book together. But the past could not so easily be escaped. Old wounds inevitably re-opened, and new misunderstandings arose. Relations between the two women slowly deteriorated; after a couple of years, they finally stopped talking to one another. And Hazel, who had long resented the press for ignoring her -- it would rather portray her as a teenage racist, she thought, than as the contrite and tolerant woman she had become -- stopped talking to reporters, including to me, at all.

By the time of this month's celebrations, they had not spoken for seven years. Though they are incommunicado, their paths had therefore crossed yet again: while Elizabeth, who'd spent a lifetime fighting depression and despair, has come out of her shell, the once-ebullient Hazel -- who always was a bit of the performer, even in that day in front of Central High School -- has spent it going in. So it was that while Elizabeth was conspicuous and outspoken throughout the celebration, Hazel was nowhere to be seen.

Except, of course, in Will Counts' famous photograph.