Nearly a century after the Civil War ended and the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, racism was still a pervasive problem in the United States, particularly in the South.
A primary example of this institutionalized racism was the racial segregation in the school system, which required African-American children and Caucasian children to attend separate schools. In 1954, a landmark decision was reached in the famous case of ‘Brown vs. the Board of Education’, which required American schools to stop the process of racial segregation. However, it was another 3 years before the first high school in a major southern city was desegregated.
Elizabeth Eckford was one of the 9 brave teenagers to attend this desegregated school, and she soon became the face of the desegregation movement.
Elizabeth was born on 4 October, 1941. She was one of 6 children. Her father, Oscar, was a dining car maintenance worker, and her mother Birdie was a teacher at a segregated school for the blind and deaf. When civil rights hero Thurgood Marshall argued the case of ‘Brown vs. the Board of Education’ before the Supreme Court, Elizabeth was inspired. She decided she wanted to follow in Marshall’s footsteps and become a lawyer, and she thought attending Little Rock’s Central High School would help her achieve her dreams. As such, when they began looking for African-American students to join the student body for the first time, Elizabeth applied. She and 8 other African-Americans were accepted, and she was scheduled to start classes there on 4 September, 1957.
The decision to desegregate Central High was, by-and-large, an extremely unpopular one. In fact, the governor of Arkansas was so vehemently opposed to it that he actually called in the National Guard to prevent Elizabeth and the rest of the Little Rock 9 (as they were called) from entering the school. A mob of roughly a thousand people formed to protest the arrival of the African-American students, and as a result, the place where the Little Rock 9 were supposed to meet and walk to school together was changed the night before. Unfortunately, however, Elizabeth’s family did not have a phone, and, as such, she never learned of the change of plan.
Instead, Elizabeth and her mother spent the evening of 3 September doing her hair. They picked out an outfit. They did everything they could to make sure Elizabeth would look smart for her first day at her new school. And then, on the morning of 4 September, Elizabeth got up, had a family prayer, and prepared to make history.
It’s difficult to walk through pain.
She took the bus alone and got off a block from the campus. When she arrived, she was surrounded by an angry mob of people chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, we ain’t gonna integrate.” They yelled racial slurs at her and called for her lynching. When she turned to an elderly woman who looked kind in hopes of finding a bit of compassion, the woman spat in her face. Elizabeth approached the members of the National Guard, hoping they would escort her safely inside. Instead, they barred her with their rifles.
It was the longest block I ever walked in my whole life.
It would be 3 weeks before Elizabeth and the rest of the Little Rock 9 were able to make it safely inside Little Rock Central High School, and they were only able to do so under the escort of heavily armed guards. Tensions were so high, and the situation was so dangerous, that President Eisenhower had to issue a special proclamation and dispatch the National Guard to ensure the students’ safety. Still, Elizabeth and the rest of the Little Rock 9 were not deterred.
We were expected to suffer in silence…
Despite the presence of US troops at Central High for the entire school year, things were still very difficult for the Little Rock 9, and because photos of Elizabeth trying to enter the school alone on 4 September had made her an international symbol of the movement, they were particularly difficult for her. At one point, she had a rock thrown at her during gym. On another occasion, she was thrown down a flight of stairs.
The following year, the governor, still staunchly opposed to allowing his schools to be integrated, decided to shut down all of the high schools in the area rather than see their integration continue. By this point Elizabeth had accrued enough credits by taking night and correspondence classes to apply to college, so, rather than waiting to finish high school when Central reopened, she went on to Knox College in Illinois. However, she longed to be closer to her parents, so she transferred to Central State University, where she earned her BA in history.
True reconciliation can occur when we honestly acknowledge our painful but shared past.
From there, Elizabeth went on to serve her country for 5 years as a member of the U.S. Army. She’s held a number of jobs since then, working as everything from a military reporter to a history teacher to a probation officer. She has been awarded numerous accolades for her courage and heroism, including the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal and the U.S.’s Congressional Gold Medal, which is the country’s highest civilian award.