Redemption begins with saying, 'Yes, I'

September 04, 1997|By Linda R. Monk

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Brand-new clothes on the first day of school. A sense of hope and fresh beginnings. This is the schoolchild's timeless ritual, accompanied by the blessings of anxious parents.

For 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, these feelings were even more intense on September 4, 1957. She wore a freshly ironed dress that she had made with her mother especially for the occasion. Elizabeth tried to comfort her nervous mother, as her father paced the room. The family prayed together before Elizabeth stepped onto the public bus.

Elizabeth Eckford was one of the first nine students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The others had planned to arrive at school together, but Elizabeth never got the message. So that morning she stepped off the bus alone into a crowd of angry segregationists, her new school surrounded by the Arkansas National Guard. She attempted to enter the school three times, and was rebuffed by the guardsmen. Hecklers followed her as she tried to make her way back to the bus stop -- and home.

''I couldn't turn around because they were right on my heels. I had to keep on walking,'' she says in a new radio documentary, ''Will the Circle Be Unbroken?'' Filled with the voices and songs of America's civil-rights era, the epic 13-hour series aired in April on public radio stations (transcripts can be read at www.unbrokencircle.org). Her voice still raw with the pain of decades earlier, Elizabeth sobs as she recalls of the National Guard, ''I thought they were there for my protection.''

States' rights

Craig Rains was a white senior at Central High who opposed integration on states-rights grounds. He was taking pictures as Elizabeth tried to enter the school. That event was a sea change for him, as he relates in the documentary. ''I think at that point is when I really began to change my mind and realize that this was not a states-rights issue, that it was a people issue.''

A photograph of that day at Central High has become an icon of America's battle over race. In it, a stoic Elizabeth is hectored by a young white girl named Hazel Bryan, her face frozen forever in a paroxysm of racism.

For years, Hazel Bryan's face has haunted me, because when my Mississippi school was finally integrated in 1970, that photo could easily have been taken of me. My Elizabeth Eckford was Sandra Gross. She had the misfortune to be in my seventh-grade English class and the object of my considerable racist passions.

When our class performed a play about Rip Van Winkle, I argued vehemently that it was historically inaccurate for my black classmates to portray upstate New Yorkers of Dutch descent. Never mind that it was also historically inaccurate for white Southerners to play such roles -- race was all that mattered.

Hazel Bryan became a poster child for racism. Her picture appeared across the nation, in schoolbooks, and on every anniversary celebrating Central High's integration. But hardly anyone reported her apology to Elizabeth Eckford five years later in 1962.

In ''Breaking the Silence,'' a new book about the Central High crisis by Sara Alderman Murphy, Hazel Bryan describes her change of heart:

''I don't know what triggered it, but one day I just started squalling about how she must have felt. I felt so bad that I had done this that I called her . . . and apologized to her. I told her I was sorry that I had done that, that I was not thinking for myself. . . . I think both of us were crying.''

Today, Hazel Bryan is a 55-year-old grandmother and active volunteer who has taught parenting skills to at-risk teen-agers. She remains close to a young African-American mother who took her class. I spoke to Hazel Bryan recently, as she got home from taking a tae kwan do class with her twin grandsons.

''There is more to me than that one moment,'' she said.

Forgiven long ago

I spoke to Sandra Gross recently, for the first time in 26 years. I fully expected her to hang up on me, before I could apologize. ''You were forgiven a long time ago,'' she said. ''I don't waste time and energy in hating.''

Today, Craig Rains states with pride that he lives in an integrated neighborhood, attends an integrated church, and belongs to organizations that are all integrated -- including the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He feels strongly that ''the press has blown the violence all out of proportion -- not that I condone any of it.''

Wesley Pruden agrees. Today, he is editor-in-chief of the Washington Times. In 1957, he covered the Little Rock crisis for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. His father, a Little Rock minister, was a leader of the Capital Citizens Council, which spearheaded the opposition to integrating Central.

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