"What's Past Is Prologue"

This is one of the most infamous photos in American history:

Little Rock, September 4, 1957.  That's Elizabeth Eckford on the right; the girl hurling verbal abuse at her is Hazel Bryan.

It's the subject of a new book, Elizabeth and Hazel by David Margolick.  Margolick focuses not on the incident but on the two young women & what happened in their lives.

There are two good articles online that cover the gist of the story, one found at the NYT, the other at the UK Telegraph.

There's a lot more to the story than you imagine.

First, while Elizabeth Eckford was denied admission that day, Hazel Bryan is the one who ended up going to another school to avoid the notoriety the photo caused her.

She had the good sense & good grace to contact Eckford & apologize, but it wasn't until decades later that the two met face to face.

This moment in time affected both women profoundly over the course of their lives.  Eckford had a rocky personal history, some peaks, some valleys, not at all atypical of many African-Americans of her generation.  Bryan apparently tried to find herself in a number of pursuits, including to her credit social outreach to disadvantaged African-American children (her husband opines it was as if she was trying to atone for that photo).

When the two were finally introduced face-to-face, it seemed for a moment that history had finally been put to rest.  They struck up a friendship, spoke together at various engagements, and seemed to offer a bright, new face to post-Jim Crow racial relations in America.

...and if this was the Hallmark movie version, that's where their story would end.

But this is real life, and real life gets messy.

Eckford suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for most of her life (and before anybody poo-poos this, remember she was just a teenage girl at the time, facing a horde of enraged white racists & an armed National Guard unit determined not to let her enter school in a community notorious for racial segregation & hatred; there were regular lynchings, shootings, bombings, and killings of African-Americans who dared asked for equality); Bryan seemed to have enjoyed her life far more.

When Eckford tried to ask Bryan more probing questions about her attitude & mindset at the time of the photo, Bryan became reluctant to share.  In the end she curtailed the friendship; while the two are not hostile to one another, they no longer communicate directly.

Frankly, I can see both sides of this issue.

For Bryan, I'm sure there's a sense of shame & sorrow & a reluctance to revisit that pain by re-opening old wounds.

What's done is done, what's past is past, let sleeping dogs lie.

But I can also easily understand Eckford's POV, that unless & until Bryan recognizes the magnitude of her offense, not just against Eckford personally but against all African-Americans, then there is a real question as to whether Bryan is truly repentant of her actions or just of getting caught on camera.

As Christians we are told to forgive one another seventy-times-seven.  That is a hard, hard teaching, difficult to live by.  We are told to pray that God forgives us as we forgive others, which is a nasty little booby trap if you don't realize exactly what that means.

So there's no easy answer to this story, no glib very-special-episode ending.  We're left with pain and shame and sorrow no matter how one chooses to slice it.

As the Bard famously observed, "What's past is prologue."

 

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