The Story of Elizabeth Eckford, Who Became the Face of Desegregation 60 Years Ago

In 1957, a group of nine Black students enrolled in Arkansas’ Little Rock Central High School. They were to be the first Black students to attend the school. The group became known as the “Little Rock Nine.” On the first day of school, they faced a mob of angry protesters shouting and spitting on them and National Guard soldiers blocking their way. Eventually, the federal government stepped in to ensure the students could get to school safely. The difficulties the students faced didn’t end there, but the group stayed determined in the face of opposition. They helped break ground for others and ensure everyone would have equal opportunities for education.

Elizabeth Eckford became the most famous member of the “Little Rock Nine” due to a newspaper photograph of her that was published in 1957. Forty years later, she was in the newspapers again, as she delivered a speech at a reconciliation rally and even became friends with one of her tormentors from the original photo. Although their friendship didn’t last, a photo of the pair together became a symbol of how reconciliation can be possible.

Eckford is featured in the most famous photo of the “Little Rock Crisis” which was taken by newspaper photographer Will Counts. The photo was taken on the first day of the school year, September 4, 1957. It shows 15-year-old Eckford attempting to walk to school while being followed by an angry mob of White protesters.

Eckford and protesters
Image source: Will Counts Jr. via Indiana University archives

Little Rock Central High School was desegregated due to the 1954 United States Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka where the court ruled that having separate public schools for Black and White students was unconstitutional. Schools were desegregated all across the country. In 1955, the Little Rock School Board drafted its plan for gradual integration that would begin in 1957. The NAACP then registered the “Little Rock Nine” to attend the high school. The students were selected based on their excellent grades and attendance records.

Some government officials publicly opposed the Supreme Court’s ruling, including the governor of Arkansas.

Several segregationist organizations had warned that they would hold protests at the school and block the students from entering. The governor called in the National Guard to support these protests and help keep the Black students out of the school.

Protesters and National Guard soldiers
Image source: history.com

Historians believe the governor’s decision was both politically and racially motivated. As he was campaigning for a third term, he likely called in the National Guard in an attempt to gain favor with the racist elements in the state.

The nine students had planned to arrive together, but the meeting place was changed at the last minute and Eckford’s family did not have a telephone. So, while the rest of the group gathered to use the school’s rear entrance together, Eckford walked up to the front entrance alone. There was a mob of about 400 people surrounding the school in addition to National Guard soldiers.

When Eckford tried to walk through the crowd, National Guard soldiers blocked her path. The mob surrounded Eckford and threatened to lynch her, and she ran away. The rest of the “Little Rock Nine” was also blocked from entering the school.

Eckford blocked from school
Image source: Time & Life pictures

For the following two weeks, the nine students studied from home. The mayor of Little Rock, Woodrow Wilson Mann, asked President Eisenhower to send federal troops to protect the students. At this point, President Eisenhower requested a meeting with the governor of Arkansas and asked him to respect the court’s decision.

The “Little Rock Nine” attempted to enter the school again on September 23. This time there was a mob of about 100 people, and the students successfully entered the school with the help of a city police escort. The next day, President Eisenhower sent elements of the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students from protesters.

Airborne soldiers protecting Little Rock Nine
Image source: Time & Life pictures

The president also took control of Arkansas’ National Guard. Soldiers were deployed there for the entire school year to ensure the Black students could enter safely. However, once inside the school, the “Little Rock Nine” were still subjected to harassment and physical abuse from other students. For instance, Eckford was once pushed down a flight of stairs, and another member of “Little Rock Nine” had acid thrown into her eyes.

The Arkansas governor continued to fight desegregation in the following years. In 1958, he ordered the closing of all of Little Rock’s four public high schools. But one year later, three members of the school board were replaced, and the new board started reopening the schools.  The temporary closing of Central High School prompted Eckford to take correspondence and night courses, and she gained enough credits to earn her high school diploma. She later earned a BA in history from Central State University in Ohio. She has since worked as a newspaper writer, history teacher, welfare worker, and as an information specialist in the United States Army. She is currently a probation officer in Little Rock.

In the famous photos of the event, one teenage girl can be clearly seen screaming at Eckford. That girl was Hazel Bryan. Bryan and Eckford became friends 40 years later when they both attended an anniversary commemoration event. They posed for a “reconciliation” poster together. The photograph was taken by Counts, the same photographer who took the original image. But by early 2000, their friendship ended.

Eckford and Bryan in 57 and 97
Image source:1,2

When the pair was interviewed by a writer in 1999, it showed their relationship became strained as Eckford believed Bryan hadn’t fully taken responsibility for her actions. During the interview, Eckford asked Bryan if she could remember how she felt or what her loved ones said when the photos of the event were first published. Bryan said it had not been worth remembering because the only reason for her behavior was attention-seeking. Bryan said she was “just hamming up and being recognized.”

When the “reconciliation” poster went into another round of printing, Eckford would only give permission if she was allowed to make an addition. A small sticker was added in the corner that read: “True reconciliation can occur only when we honestly acknowledge our painful, but shared, past.” – Elizabeth Eckford.
[sources: 1,2,3,4,5]

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