Monthly Archives: November 2011

Elizabeth and Hazel

I’ve just read David Margolick’s sobering and instructive book Elizabeth and Hazel.  Elizabeth Eckford is the student photographed on her first day of school at Central High School in Little Rock, walking to school head high through a threatening white crowd.  Hazel Massery is the white girl captured in the same photograph yelling with her mouth open.  The iconic photo came to symbolize the dignity of the black struggle for equal rights set against the vitriol of white resistance.

Little Rock 1957

Margolick’s book has two main parts.  The first recreates Elizabeth’s hopeful preparations for her first day at Central High, and then recounts in painful detail the daily harassment (torture) she endured that year.  Margolick cites Hannah Arendt’s 1959 argument that sending black children into schools where they would be despised and letting them take the brunt of the political battle against segregation was irresponsible.  Arendt’s view was unpopular with liberals in 1959, but after reading the catalogue of atrocities to which Elizabeth was exposed, I can see her point.

In Meridian last month, I was surprised to hear Roscoe Jones, outspoken leader of the Freedom School students in 1964, express regrets about having been in the forefront of integration.  In the 1960’s, Meridian had both a black and a white junior college.  The black junior college was an extension of T.J. Harris, the black high school.  In 1966, Roscoe joined five black women as the first to integrate Meridian Junior College (now Meridian Community College). Although from outside desegregation seemed to go smoothly, Roscoe recalls the pressure of having to be constantly on guard, the threats and bullying and hatred, and being called “Nigger” so often he thought it was his name. While proud that he paved the way for others, Roscoe knows that had he stayed at T.J. Harris, he would have been king of the hill — a popular star football player and student leader, finishing out his school years surrounded by people who liked and admired him, rather than facing daily taunts.

The second part of Margolick’s book traces the waxing and waning of the unlikely friendship between Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Massery.  As an adult Hazel reached out to Elizabeth to apologize for her actions, and for a time the two became good friends, going on road trips together and sharing their personal lives. But the friendship broke down and the two stopped speaking.  Margolick explores the reasons for this and comes up with no definitive explanation.  He learns that the families and friends of both women were skeptical and unsupportive of the friendship, even though public figures such as Bill Clinton celebrated the reconciliation.  For years after her time at Central High, Elizabeth suffered from emotional disabilities that look very like PTSD, and this may have made it hard for her to sustain a friendship.  In the end, it seems that the bridge of good will between the two women was just too frail to continue to span the chasm of distrust and misunderstanding and racism that separated Hazzel’s white world and Elizabeth’s black world.

This is not the ending that author or reader want the book to have.  It’s not the ending we would have permitted ourselves to contemplate in 1964 when we joined hands and sang “Black and white together …..”  And, in fact, it’s not the end, but at best a caution that 50 years later, reconciliation is still a fragile and elusive thing.

Arriving again

It had been more than 40 years since I had been in Meridian.  Back then, you arrived in town on two-lane U.S. 80,  which connected Meridian, with Montgomery and Selma to the east and Jackson and Vicksburg to the west.  US 80 was a workaday highway then, bounded by farms and piney woods, desolate in places, with little in the way features– a gas station here, a small town there.

Nowadays, you drive into Meridian on I20 , a rumbling interstate full of 18-wheelers from Atlanta and Birmingham headed to parts west.

I was thinking back to my first drive to Meridian, in late June 1964.  I was in a car of brand fresh civil rights workers from the north and midwest coming from an intense week of training in Oxford, OH.  There we had learned the principles and practices of nonviolence. We had been warned of the dangers, but we had been fortified with safety rules: don’t stand in front of a lighted window at night, get a Mississippi license tag right away, and do not under any circumstances, if you are a white woman, be seen alone in public with a black man.  You could be endangering his life.

In Oxford,we  had learned that three young men who preceded us had disappeared and were feared dead. The three had been based in Meridian/ We were headed to Meridian.  COFO higherups had decided we should drive all night from Ohio, through Kentucky, Tennessee. I vividly recall the wavy, shimmering of the predawn highway as my sleep-deprived brain struggled to maintain enough attention to keep the car on the highway.  I remember thinking that I knew I was willing to die for civil rights, but was I willing to die for lack of sleep?

I thought too of the dozens of times I had driven US 80 back and forth from Meridian to Montgomery in 1966 and 1967, when I worked for the Southern Courier newspaper, consuming a lifetime supply of AM country music and Motown.

Back to the present, I realized I was  in Lauderdale County.  I was excited, and my mind filled with images of the downtown Meridian I had known, at that time a city of nearly 50,000 people. with a compact downtown of mostly two- and three-story banks,  stores, offices, and churches.

In no way was I prepared for the welcome sign that greeted me this time. It screamed “BED, BATH & BEYOND.” Arrayed on both sides of the Interstate was one of the biggest malls I have ever seen (okay, I live in Vermont). Dozens of standard-issue beige buildings housing national chain stores were clumped on both sides of the highway. I sure wasn’t in the 1960s any more, and neither was Meridian.

I still had enough of a sense of my bearings to get off at the downtown exit.  As I headed onto the overpass heading into town, I glanced in my rearview mirror. The driver of the car behind-me was a black young man, looking totally relaxed, wearing a baseball cap half backwards. Next to him, looking equally relaxed, was a very white teenage girl.

“Oh my God!” I thought.  “They’re going to get shot!”

They weren’t, of course. As I was to realize in the next few days, this was a perfectly normal sight in Meridian.  I had a lot to re- learn.