A few years ago, journalist David Margolick went to Arkansas in search of a story about one of President Clinton's antagonists. He didn't find it. Instead, he found a stunning tale about wrongdoing and forgiveness and the giant gulf in between.
Margolick's moment of discovery came in a museum at Little Rock's Central High School, the site of one of the most wrenching moments of the civil rights movement.
On a September day in 1957, a camera captured an immortal photo of a white girl yelling at a black girl amid a crowd of people. One of them dared to think they both deserved the same education. The other expressed the fury of many whites in the South at what they viewed as an outrageous affront.
At the museum, Margolick saw a poster of the black girl and the white girl as grown women, standing together in front of the high school. The photo's title: "Reconciliation."
How on earth did that happen, Margolick wondered. He answers the question in his new book Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock.
I raved about "Elizabeth and Hazel" in a Monitor review, calling it "powerful and extraordinary." In an interview this week, I asked Margolick about the women's personalities, their unusual relationship and the lessons of their most unusual story.
Spoiler alert: I was careful in the review to not give away the book's twists and turns. This Q&A, however, includes details about how things turned out for these two women. If you plan to read the book, you might want to save this post to read afterward.
Q: Why is this photo so unforgettable?
A: This white girl is shouting uninhibitedly at a black girl who’s utterly resigned to her fate. It crystallizes the sentiment of the South.
Hazel's face shows all of the resentment and anger and bigotry with which the South greeted the civil rights movement and any change in its hallowed way of life. All of that is in her face. In no other picture that I know is it all encapsulated quite so neatly.
Q: As women, both Elizabeth (the black girl in the photo) and Hazel (the white girl) come across as extremely complicated. Is that a fair assessment?
A: One of the attractions to the story is that the women are very surprising. They're complex in ways that one might not have anticipated, and they're not stereotypical in any way. There are a lot of layers to each of them.
Elizabeth is an unusual woman, extremely intelligent and shrewd, discerning, well read. She's very sensitive and has faced terrible adversity and has bounced back.
She's also very tough, and she's very judgmental. As bloodied as she's been, she's very demanding of herself and other people. That's made her difficult in some ways.
Q: What about Hazel, who apologized early on to Elizabeth and later became a controversial poster child for racial reconciliation?
A: She turned out to be a person of much more depth and complexity than I anticipated she'd be.
It's easy to underestimate Hazel, who never graduated from high school. You think someone with that face in the photo is irredeemable. A lot of people think that, that she was beyond repair, and anybody who felt that way would never change.
They never think it was aberrational that she was even there that day, or that she was acting out, taking a chance to ham it up.
The more I got to know her, the more surprising, remarkable, open-minded, interesting and admirable she seemed, beginning with her apology to Elizabeth in 1962 or 1963. It was reassuring that she called Elizabeth when no one was looking. She'd done the right thing, and that was a real hallmark of her character.
Later, she was hanging out with black children and going strawberry picking with them and working with the underprivileged. This wasn't for show. This was a matter of conviction on her part.
Q: The book chronicles both the close friendship that grew between these women in adulthood and the rift that drove them apart. What lessons do you see here?
A: It's hard to imagine people starting a relationship under more dire circumstances.
These were two people of good will. They came together and formed what was really an extraordinary bond and relationship. They enjoyed each other's company, but fissures opened up between them, and in the end they couldn't close the gap.
There are lessons for all of us about real racial reconciliation. It's representative of racial attitudes, difficulties and misunderstandings.
Q: What's the state of their rift now?
A: It persists. You can sense that their separation pains them both.
One of them is stubborn and proud, and the other is hurt and proud, and they won't come back together again. Elizabeth is willing to. Hazel is not.
What Hazel has [to] say to explain her disappointment and hurt is important for people to hear. She speaks for a lot of people who have tried to bridge these racial gaps and have been disappointed.
No one tried as hard as she did, although maybe nobody had as much of an obligation to do it as she did. She's very clear that she shamed her country, state and family, and she's well aware of how egregious what she did was. She's led a good life and has tried to do the right thing.
She's very hurt and stung. It ended up being so thankless that she said to hell with everyone. She won't speak about it again.
It's a great reversal. If you look at the picture, you wouldn't imagine she's the one who's hurt.
I'm hoping that they might have a coffee together, share a moment. Elizabeth is willing. It's up to Hazel. I sense that each of them aches for that a bit. At this point, they'll have to do it on their own, I guess.
Q: Your book made me ponder a broken friendship of my own. What does the story say about friends and the rifts that develop between them?
A: You're posting this on Yom Kippur. It's the day when you look into your soul and try to realize the way you've hurt other people and done things wrong. It's a time to ask for their forgiveness.
Elizabeth judged Hazel very sharply, and no [one] has more standing to be skeptical than Elizabeth. But even people who've been hurt, but maybe particularly those who have been hurt, sometimes need to summon as much forgiveness as they can. Friends sometimes have to be forgiving, especially when elements of the underlying connection are still there.
Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s books section.