The Many Lives of Hazel Bryan

In the most famous photo of the Civil Rights era, she was the face of white bigotry. You’ll never believe what she did with the rest of her life.

  1. Who doesn’t know that face?

    It’s the face of a white girl—she was only 15 years old, but everyone always thinks her older than that, and judges her accordingly—shouting at an equally familiar, iconic figure: a sole black school girl dressed immaculately in white, her mournful and frightened eyes hidden behind sunglasses, clutching her books and walking stoically away from Little Rock Central High School on Sept. 4, 1957—the date when, in many ways, desegregation first hit the South where it hurt.

    It’s all in that white girl’s face, or so it has always appeared. In those raging eyes and clenched teeth is the hatred and contempt for an entire race, and the fury of a civilization fighting tenaciously to preserve its age-old, bigoted way of life. You know what the white girl’s saying, but you can’t print it all: commands to get out and go home—“home” being the place from which her forebears had been dragged in chains centuries earlier. That what that white girl was actually doing that day was more grabbing attention for herself than making any statement of deep conviction doesn’t really matter. Of anyone with that face, you simply assume the worst. You also assume she is beyond redemption, especially if, symbolically, she is more useful as is than further understood or evolved.

    So how is it that fifty-five years later, it is this same white girl—even more than the black girl—who feels aggrieved, who considers herself the victim of intolerance, who has retreated into embitte...

Originally published in Slate, October 2011