In 1957, Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas became the first school in the South to begin an integrational program at a time when segregation was legal. It didn't work out so well.
Photographs have the power to capture a single second in history for posterity. Just the click of the camera can immortalize a single moment and shed light on historical episodes we wouldn't have access to. That's the case of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bran, protagonists of a photograph that shows the true colors of racism that still represents the worst side of humanity.
The photo is straightforward, a black teenager surrounded by white people, and a white girl screaming hysterically, filled with rage and hatred towards her. “Why should someone endure such treatment just for the color of their skin?,” some might wonder. This photo was taken on the morning of September in 1957, a day fifteen-year-old Eckford had been waiting for such a long time. It was her first day at school, and she was one of the lucky nine students allowed to enter Little Rock Central High School, an only-white school that had just agreed to start an integration program.
As she’s explained throughout the years, that day she was excited and worried about looking great and cause a good impression on her fellow classmates and friends. She knew she was living in a time when race determined the rights and treatment you’d get, but after all, somehow she thought that the fact that she was chosen for this program was a sign that things were changing. Her parents didn’t think the same. They had agreed just because it was their daughter’s dream, but they were extremely worried about how she would be received.
Elizabeth was a fortunate girl with access to education since she was a little girl. She dreamt of becoming a successful lawyer and make a change in black people’s reality, but she believed the schools she was allowed to attend to didn’t really give her the tools she needed to achieve her goal. Central High had more classes to pick from, so when the program was announced she didn’t doubt on signing up. So, finally, the day arrived. She woke up early to steam her dress and fix her hair, she went down the stairs, and found the entire family waiting for her. They prayed, and she went to the bus stop.
As she came closer to the school, she noticed there were too many cars there and a huge crowd outside. She started walking and noticed there were soldiers, which gave her some tranquility. She saw that some of the students passed through the soldiers’ line so she decided to follow them, only to find that they were closing the way for her. She assumed she had to get through another entrance as she had been accustomed by the segregation laws, but when she reached the second military point the soldiers were way more hostile even pointing their rifles at her.
All of a sudden she started listening to a mob approaching and shouting to her. She froze, but she remembered what her parents had advised her: “Don’t let words affect you, pretend they’re not there and don’t listen.” The photo proved to be a great evidence of her determination to not let others affect her. She continued walking to the next entrance, where once again her way was blocked. What could she do? She couldn’t run. She saw a nearby bus stop and decided to go back home, but she continued walking surrounded by all the hateful people calling for a lynching. When she reached the stop, she sat calmly on the bench and waited for the bus to arrive while the mob continued screaming, spitting, and throwing things at her. Some tried to help and many reporters made a human fence to protect her, but the rage these people showed towards a young teenager was beyond imagination.
She had been the first of the nine black students to arrive, and when they found out about it, they backed off. The woman in charge of the program, Daisy Bates, had contacted the other students and told them that they were all going to get to the school together and accompanied by the school authorities, but Elizabeth’s family had no phone, so they didn’t care to notify her in any other way; she was just sent without any warning.
As the photograph became viral, Elizabeth and her family started receiving letters of support and encouragement, and some weeks after the incident, the nine students finally started their classes. However, as time passed, the admiration for the young girl who had faced the horrors of racism with dignity started to fade into oblivion, and attending that school proved to be worse than the few minutes that the incident lasted. Students would throw heavy things at her, put broken glasses in the gym shower to hurt her, and some professors wouldn’t even dare to touch her or talk to her directly. She had to sit in the back of the room with no one near her. The photo was only the beginning of a tragic life and a harsh reality that ended shattering this girl’s dreams.
The photograph was taken by Will Counts who was sent to cover the event, and needless to say it became an iconic evidence not only of the treatment black people received, but of the hatred white people felt towards them. The girl in the back shouting to Elizabeth is Hazel. She came from a family of white supremacists who believed these programmes were absurd. As soon as the nine students started the term, Hazel’s parents took her out of the school and sent her to another one where they were assured that no integration program would be installed.
Elizabeth didn’t end high school there and, like most of the nine students, ended up moving from Little Rock. She went to St. Louis where she finished her credits, but the memory of those horrible experiences continued haunting her, even pushing her to try to commit suicide many times. She enrolled at Knox College in Illinois, but as she continued her education, her emotional life was crumbling more and more. I can't imagine how she felt, to the point that she even tried to hitchhike far from the campus so that someone would take her and kill her. Can you imagine such distress?
Years passed and Elizabeth decided to go back home. Eventually, she was recognized wherever she went and had to move to escape from that attention, because it brought back memories she wanted to erase. However, she realized there wasn't a way to forget that. One day, she received a strange call from a woman asking for forgiveness after the terrible things she had done to her. It was Hazel Bryan, who, after marrying at sixteen and dropping out school, started leading an allegedly more political life. Elizabeth didn’t really know her by name until she explained she was the girl shouting at her at the picture (which, by the way, she avoided looking at throughout her life). Elizabeth accepted the apology, but she wasn’t sure she was ready to forgive.
Many years passed and Elizabeth was asked to attend special events as a representative of the black community and one of the most famous victims of the ill-treatment they had historically received. She denied the invitations for decades until 1997. It was the fortieth anniversary of the photo, and to celebrate that, the school had become a National Historic Site and a visitor’s center was built right next to it. There was a whole wall devoted to the photograph and the story of the first nine black students attending it. However the organization had a better idea than just placing the photo. They wondered if it was possible to reunite both women as a symbol of peace and forgiveness.
Long story short, both agreed and met after decades. They started hanging out and even became friends to people’s astonishment. Some saw it as a nice gesture, and others as a hypocritical and staged way to gain attention. It was all nice until Elizabeth started to get a little suspicious about Hazel’s real intentions. All her statements lacked some veracity or had huge holes, as to show that Hazel didn’t know what she was doing. This infuriated her, since it was obvious she had done all the thing she did knowing perfectly the consequences of her acts. The friendship ended and even though Hazel tried approaching her, Elizabeth decided it was for the best.
Many posters of both the 1957 photo and the one they took together are still being sold at the Little Rock center after Elizabeth’s approval and as a way to help fund the center, but she asked for a big golden stamp to be placed in the corner that reads “True reconciliation can occur only when we honestly acknowledge our painful, but shared, past.” Her picture shocked many people from all over the world. However, the moment it captured affected her life even more than improving it. It's unbelievable that sixty years later this is still an everyday scene for many. Sadly, things haven't changed that much.
If you want to know the story of some of the most iconic historical photographs, take a look at these: