An event of racially charged intimidation, captured on film, has lasting repercussions for two women.
Margolick spent 12 years researching the interlocking histories of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery, two students—black and white, respectively—who simultaneously attended Arkansas’ Little Rock Central High School in the 1950s. Eckford, a smart student with lawyerly aspirations, was strictly raised in a squat, crowded house. Massery, the daughter of a wounded World War II veteran, was brought up poor but hopeful and easygoing, and she frequently played with black children as a girl. Though “Little Rock in the Eisenhower era was a racial checkerboard,” writes the author, its looming high school still became the first Southern institution to become desegregated, which sent Eckford, along with eight other school board–selected black student “trailblazers” (the “Little Rock Nine”), into predominantly white classrooms. This fact incensed the 15-year-old Massery, who, backed by 250 angry, prejudiced white citizens, severely bullied Eckford, an action that was captured and immortalized on film by newspaper photojournalist Will Counts. Massery remained remorseless as the fallout from her actions included denouncement from both segregationists and the general public. Eckford, together with her integrated classmates, would go on to endure years of abuse in school. Margolick’s impressively thorough examination is unique among other Central High exposés in that it incorporates updated material culled from media sources including interviews with eight of the school’s nine black students and statements in Eckford and Massery’s own words. Both of these women, he writes, were unenthusiastic about revisiting their ordeal, even to simply set the record straight—which the author accomplishes with graceful tact. Decades later, Massery’s atonement and redemption manifested in an amicable but disappointingly short-lived friendship, joining Eckford as she accepted presidential accolades and while antagonistically interviewed on Oprah. The narrative concludes with the pair’s discordant severance. “At this point,” he writes, “only Photoshop could bring them together.”
Riveting reportage of an injustice that still resonates with sociological significance.