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A Scholastic Activist’s First Day

“If we have honestly acknowledged our painful but shared past, then we can have reconciliation.” 

Elizabeth Eckford became a heroine of the civil rights movement when she was only 15 years old. Despite the fact that Brown v. Board ruled school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, some southern states refused to honor the decision. Three years later, she and nine other brave African American students became the first people of color to attend Little Rock Central High School. The nine students became known as the Little Rock Nine. 

“We did not have a telephone, so inadvertently we were not contacted to let us know that Daisy Bates of NAACP had arranged for some ministers to accompany the students in a group. And so, it was I that arrived alone.” 

After stepping off the bus two blocks away from the school, she was greeted by a mob—thousands of angry white students, families, and other pro-segregationists blocking the school entrance. Eckford recalls pausing to ask for help from an elderly white woman who then spat in her face. The crowd hurled racial slurs at her amidst the chant: “2-4-6-8, we ain’t gonna integrate!” 

She walked from one entrance to the next with her books held tight against her chest. Armed members of the Arkansas National Guard stood at the doors and corralled her toward the mob with their rifles. 

“It was the longest block I’ve ever walked in my whole life.” 

For the next 2 weeks, the nine African American students opted to do their studies from the safety of their homes. Three weeks later, President Eisenhower sent U.S. troops to protect the Little Rock Nine so they could safely attend classes. 

A self-proclaimed, “shy, subservient” child, she felt surprised to be honored as a social justice trailblazer and wasn’t prepared for the national attention that followed her. Despite the presence of the troops, Eckford was hit by rocks and thrown down a flight of stairs by angry white students within a month of attending classes. 

“8-9-10 the guards are takin’ us in!” - Eckford’s internal chant in reply to the mob (shared in an interview decades after the event) 

Due to the ongoing legal battle over desegregation, all high schools in Arkansas were closed in 1958. This meant Elizabeth Eckford and the other eight Little Rock Nine students were unable 

to graduate from Little Rock Central. However, the ever-tenacious Eckford gained enough credits to receive her diploma by taking night courses. 

In 1958, the NAACP awarded her and the rest of the Little Rock Nine the Spingarn Medal for their outstanding achievement and bravery. 

In 1998, President Clinton awarded each person in the group a Congressional Gold Medal, the country’s highest civilian honor. 

After graduating with a Bachelor’s in history from Central State University, a historically Black university in Wilberforce, Ohio, she served in the U.S. Army for 5 years. Since then she has worked as a military reporter, history teacher, and probation officer. 

Eckford’s memoir, The Worst First Day, was published in 2018. The book focuses on race equality and anti-bullying while giving readers a first-hand account of the fear, threats, and intimidation she has experienced. That same year, she received an honorary Doctorate from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. 

The Little Rock Nine Foundation, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization, was created in 1999 by Eckford and the other members of the Little Rock Nine: Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed Wair, Terrence Roberts, Ph.D., Carlotta Walls LaNier, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Jefferson Thomas, Melba Pattillo Beals, and Minnijean Brown Trickey. Every year, the nonprofit awards scholarship funds to underprivileged students of color, ensuring equal access to quality education. For more information or to schedule speaking events, visit www.littlerock9.com

Sources: 

https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/her-own-words-elizabeth-eckford https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2vTr_HRHvE http://www.theheroinecollective.com/elizabeth-eckford/ https://www.loc.gov/collections/civil-rights-history-project/articles-and-essays/school-segregation -and-integration/ https://clintonwhitehouse2.archives.gov/WH/New/html/littlerock.html#:~:text=The%20President %20also%20will%20recognize,to%20the%20Little%20Rock%20Nine.