Modern-Day America Summed Up In One Photo (From 1957)

This will change how you think of America forever. Or, you know, at least for a little while.
Modern-Day America Summed Up In One Photo (From 1957)

You've seen the below photo before, whether you remember it or not. It depends on how well you were paying attention in history class the day they talked about segregation. In your textbook was this picture of a black student surrounded by a white mob. At the center of said mob is a single white teenager screaming in blind rage:

Modern-Day America Summed Up In One Photo (From 1957)
Will Counts/Arkansas Democrat

In case you're wondering if maybe she's shouting words of encouragement there, what she's saying is "Go home, n****r! Go back to Africa!"

That photo became a perfect symbol of the struggle for desegregation. If it had been staged, it'd have been criticized for being too on the nose. But the two figures at the center of it aren't symbols -- they're people. And hearing what happened after this photo will change how you think of America forever. Or it will change how you think of America for a while, then you'll kind of forget about it. Either one.

First, Some Background ...

On September 4, 1957, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford got ready for her first day of the new school year like every other teenager. She put on a new dress, had her mom do her hair, ate breakfast, grabbed her schoolbook, and went out the door. However, she never made it to her first class. Elizabeth was part of the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine black students who had enrolled at the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. School segregation had been struck down three years earlier, and this was to be the first day the new law was enacted in Arkansas.

On that first morning, Eckford accidentally arrived earlier than the rest of the group, and (on her own) had to face reporters, armed members of the national guard, and about 400 angry white protesters, all of whom blocked her path to the school's entrance. That's when that famous photo was taken, among others.

Modern-Day America Summed Up In One Photo (From 1957)
Will Counts/Arkansas Democrat

For younger readers, imagine everyone else is a Twitter egg.

She was 15. Think about that. Think of how fragile you were at that age, how the smallest slights seemed like life-ending catastrophes. How you (wrongly) felt like you were the center of everyone's scorn and mockery. Imagine that bundle of nervous hormones striding through a crowd of people who are, in fact, all screaming directly at you.

Behind them, you see the fucking military and realize they aren't there to protect you from the mob -- they're there on behalf of that mob. Treating you like you're a suicide bomber there to level the building, rather than a kid who wants to quietly learn stuff alongside everybody else. Someone who just wants to fit in.

And that screamer stalking Eckford through the crowd? Her name is Hazel Bryan.

Modern-Day America Summed Up In One Photo (From 1957)
Will Counts/Arkansas Democrat


She was also 15, and in a saner alternate universe, they probably would have been classmates, or even friends. Instead, she screamed threats and racial slurs, and later ranted to reporters about how it was the whites whose rights were being violated. But it was that photo that was destined to outlive her by decades or centuries. Her worst moment, frozen in time forever.

Now here comes the first -- but not the last -- twist in our story.

It Becomes A Lesson In How People Can Change (Sort Of)

Elizabeth Eckford and the rest of the Little Rock Nine eventually attended school. True, they only got in after President Eisenhower personally ordered federal troops to escort them into the building three weeks later, but they got in all the same. Elizabeth later said that her classes were alright (teenage translation: boring), but that she also suffered taunting and overt abuse from her fellow students, including being hit by rocks and pushed down a flight of stairs.

White House Press Office

Turns out even Ike the fuck Eisenhower having your back isn't enough to stop high-schoolers from acting like assholes.

She later went to college, got a bachelor's degree in history, joined the army, had two sons, and became a substitute teacher. However, Eckford constantly struggled with depression and PTSD, and would sometimes go years or even decades between jobs. See, because she's a human being, not a face in a photo, and shit like this leaves scars.

Modern-Day America Summed Up In One Photo (From 1957)
Will Counts/Arkansas Democrat

Also scarring: getting goddamn rocks thrown at you.

Meanwhile, the photo of Bryan became famous worldwide. She became the screaming symbol of ignorant white supremacy. Her parents were surprised by her sudden notoriety and pulled her out of the school (she never attended a single class at the school she was so angrily trying to preserve for her race). She was transferred to another high school, but dropped out when she was 17, after which she got married and had kids. Then, something kind of miraculous happened.

In the next few years after the photo, Bryan listened to speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and watched as black protesters were attacked for daring to eat at the counter of a segregated diner. She read books on black history and started volunteering to work with underprivileged black teenagers and mothers. She -- gasp! -- realized she was wrong.

Modern-Day America Summed Up In One Photo (From 1957)
Will Counts/Arkansas Democrat

When you become a worldwide avatar of hatred, you gotta at least wonder if you may be part of the problem.

Then, one day in the early 1960s, she looked up her old classmate's name in the phone book and called her to apologize. Decades later, the two became friends. They were constantly invited to events to commemorate the anniversary of the Little Rock Nine, and eventually met in person in 1997. After that, they would visit each other's houses, take adult classes, and team up to go to schools and tell kids how awesome life can be when you stop picking your friends based on their skin color. Hell, they were even interviewed by Oprah together (the ultimate best friend bonding experience).

See! Happy ending! If it was a movie, here's where the credits would roll. We got a symbol of how America beat racism once and for all.

Modern-Day America Summed Up In One Photo (From 1957)

You can almost hear "We Are Family" start playing when looking at that photo. Except ...

Only it's not a movie, and what happened next is the part that will help you understand, well, everything.

Change Is Hard, And Lasting Change Is Much Harder

Only a few years after they found each other, the women started drifting apart.

Eckford noticed that Hazel (now a grandmother with the married name Hazel Bryan Massery) seemed to have ulterior motives. First, there was the fact that even though she was 15 at the time the photo was taken and loved talking about her experience, Massery claimed to have amnesia about that day, and started retelling the events in a way that diminished her own role. That is, her words suddenly took on the tone of a half-hearted "I don't remember saying that, but sorry if you were offended" apology.

Modern-Day America Summed Up In One Photo (From 1957)
Will Counts/Arkansas Democrat

"Actually, I was just yawning."

Other classmates (both black and white) suspected that her public friendship with Eckford was more about repairing her tarnished image than genuine reconciliation. The girl on the far left of the photo carrying all the books, Mary Ann Burleson, also apologized for what she did that day, but said, " is doing this for Hazel, not for Elizabeth." At one point, Massery reportedly pushed Eckford to parlay their history into a book deal.

Soon, Massery could sense the tension (it was hard to miss). The rest of the Little Rock Nine didn't like how she had suddenly become part of their story, invited onto the stage at events intended to celebrate their courage -- you know, since they were the ones who faced down the vicious mob and armed soldiers. The people of Little Rock didn't like how, through Massery, they were all being portrayed as screaming bigots (locals have insisted that many students at the school had no problem with integration).

the St: Louis Argus vO SEPT 1947 PALGES OOS 9AY POCY On -The-Scene ARKANSAS HATE! Shove Six She Walked Alone Eisenhower Boys From To Confer School Bld
The St. Louis Argus

This isn't the kind of publicity anyone wants for their hometown.

All of a sudden, it seemed like Massery was getting more shit for apologizing than the people who'd never shown the slightest remorse (or even stopped being racist). She had no doubt done a courageous thing (how many of you could have made that first phone call?), but she at times came off like she expected to be treated like a hero for it, as if tolerance is a generous gift bestowed upon others instead of the absolute minimum a person can do to avoid being a piece of shit.

So at some point, she said "Fuck this."

1957 Little Rock Nine 37 USA
George Hunt/U.S. Postal Service

"If I'm not going to make the commemorative stamp, then what's the point?"

Maybe not those exact words. The two of them haven't spoken in years. Eckford now openly criticizes Massery in public, implying that she never fully understood what she was even apologizing for.

Some of you have already guessed why this is relevant.

... Which Brings Us To 2016

So the woman in the photo apparently progressed from open racial slurs and threats to showy attempts at reconciliation to quiet resentment that the other side won't get over it already. And all along, there was a refusal to admit she was ever truly culpable. ("I don't even remember it!")

This seems hard to forget.

Tell us this story doesn't mimic American culture as a whole -- a country where the biggest obstacle to progress isn't angry mobs chanting racial slurs, but a much larger group of people who don't consider themselves racist but still can't understand why "those people" can't simply move on. People who know how to say all the right things, but reveal themselves to not truly understand the history mere seconds later, usually right after the word "but."

"Of course slavery was wrong, but it's been 150 years ..."

"Of course Martin Luther King was a hero, but if he was alive today, surely he would admit ..."

"I'm not racist, but ..."


You get the picture.

And so on. It's not necessarily malicious -- it's an inability or unwillingness to understand. A people who will say they know racism is bad, but in reality know only that it's bad to be known as a racist. They may even make the grand gesture, volunteering at a soup kitchen before taking a selfie with a ladle of beef stew and posting it with the caption "#makingadifference." They'll talk to black friends or co-workers and join them in shaking their heads at a story of a burned church painted with swastikas. "Don't worry, I'm one of the good ones! I'm one of you!"

But then there's quiet frustration when the others don't seem to agree with that second statement. "No, you're not one of us. You don't know what it's like. You can't know." When you say you do, you're not being empathetic; you're being insulting. It's like a drunk driver who slams into your car, then when apologizing later can't resist adding, "I know how you feel! Remember, I also was in a car accident that night! It was awful!" Proving they don't get it by insisting that they get it.

Until a lynch mob has come for you, there's no understanding someone who's lived through it.

Then the annoyance sets in, the unspoken question of "When will this ever be enough?" followed quickly by "Why bother at all?" You've said you're sorry, and the burden is now on them to accept it, dammit.

Again, we're not mind readers. We're not saying this is exactly how Hazel Bryan Massery would have expressed it if given the chance (she stopped doing press years ago, insisting the whole thing was a mistake). We're just saying that in her quest to not be a living symbol of America's struggle with racism, she probably wound up being exactly that.

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