For four decades, Elizabeth Eckford did not talk in public about her experiences as a member of the Little Rock Nine, the nine black teens who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
But at a class reunion in 1996 she sought out the only two white students who showed compassion during her time at Central High and thanked them for their kindness.
Expressing her gratitude to them proved freeing. Eckford began accepting speaking engagements each time dissolving in tears when she finished sharing her story.
After 20 years of speaking to the public, she no longer gets teary-eyed, but she was getting tired of making the rounds.
“I had gotten tired of traveling but I still wanted to use my story to illustrate how powerful it is when someone supports someone who is being harassed,” Eckford said.
So she worked with her longtime friend, Eurydice Stanley and Stanley’s 15-year-old daughter, Grace, to write a book. In September 2017, Eckford returned to Central High to introduce, “The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Central High.”
“She internalized so much of it,” said Stanley. “I would ask her every year why she wouldn’t write a book. She didn’t think anyone would be interested.”
Eckford shares details of her experiences with racial discrimination at Central, but her overall message to young people is that bullying of any sort cannot be tolerated.
“I never ask students to try to defend someone who is being bullied, but if they simply acknowledge their humanity and treat them the way they want to be treated and not be afraid of their differences and let them know they don’t despise them, that is actually very supportive,” she said.
Eckford was a shy 15-year-old junior when she was approved to attend Central. On the first day, following the directions of the NAACP advisors, Eckford went to school alone. She came face to face with an angry mob of 250 white students and adults who did not want black children to attend the school.
Because her family did not have a phone, Eckford had not been informed about the change of plans to meet as a group and enter the school together.
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Eckford describes how the crowd yelled racial slurs, the way an elderly white woman spat in her face when she tried to ask for help and how soldiers raised their guns to block her entry into the school.
The moment was captured in one of the most famous images of the era which shows Eckford, eyes hidden by sunglasses, clutching her books and walking away as a white woman named Hazel Bryan, face contorted in hate, screams at Eckford’s back.
Bryan would later say she was emulating her friends and Eckford uses that response to point out the dangers of following the crowd.
Eckford managed to get to the bus stop where several kindly people surrounded her until the bus arrived. None of the black students would return to Central for three weeks.
Only then with the protection of the 101st Airborne, were they able to get past the mobs and get inside the school. They had not anticipated how much worse things could get.
“Most people think the worst that happened is what they saw in that photograph,” said Eckford of the image with Bryan. But when the 101st soldiers left after a month of walking them into school and through the hallways, Eckford and the others would experience daily torments -- physical and mental -- from the majority of their peers and teachers.
“I have talked to other people who were the first in their areas to desegregate the schools,” Eckford said. “One thing that’s become clear to me was that none of the other people had physical attacks that were routine and consistent and everyday.”
Even if the whites did not try to hurt them, they turned a blind eye to the actions of others, she said.
Students would not return to Central until the school reopened in 1959 and a new crop of black students were assigned to the school.
After her experience at Central, Eckford decided she wanted to see the world. She joined the Army and while it didn’t help her escape discrimination and segregation, it did help her get away from the pressures of home and experience life in a totally different atmosphere.
Eckford would eventually return to Little Rock and for many years she struggled before becoming a probation officer for county judge. Today she lives with her sister and her son in the childhood home where she grew up.
She is proud to have played such an important role in history, but believes we have yet to find true reconciliation.
“We can never have true reconciliation until we honestly acknowledge how painful the shared past was,” she said.
“I take the very long view of where the country started to where we are now. I realize that significant political and social change is gradual.”