How did the Little Rock Nine Change History?

Black history day

It was September 4, 1957, the beginning of a new school year. Time for new clothes, seeing old friends, looking forward to the excitement of dates, worrying about new teachers – all the things most kids have in their lives at the start of school. But for nine children in Little Rock, Arkansas, the day was filled with terror. Elizabeth Eckford, born October 4, 1941, fifteen years old, was one of those nine. It had only been three years since the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, and the idea of black children attending school with whites was still radical. The picture above shows Elizabeth walking to school, surrounded by whites shouting angry racial slurs.

“I am Elizabeth Eckford. I am part of the group that became known as the Little Rock Nine. Prior to the  [de]segregation of Central, there had been one high school for whites, Central High School; one high school for blacks, Dunbar. I expected that there may be something more available to me at Central that was not available at Dunbar; that there might be more courses I could pursue; that there were more options available. I was not prepared for what actually happened.”

The day started normally enough – the usual rush to get hair done, dressed, and out the door. Elizabeth’s father worked the night shift, and normally would have been asleep, but that day he was awake. When she was ready, Elizabeth walked the short distance to a city bus stop, boarded, and rode to within a few blocks of all-white Central High School. There seemed to be a crowd outside the school – when she got closer, she saw soldiers, and a throng of chanting, angry people barring her way.

Elizabeth writes: “So, I thought; ‘Maybe I am not supposed to enter at this point.’ So, I walked further down the line of guards to where there was another sidewalk and I attempted to pass through there. But when I stepped up, they crossed rifles. And again I said to myself; ‘So maybe I’m supposed to go down to where the main entrance is.’ So, I walked toward the center of the street and when I got to about the middle and I approached the guard he directed me across the street into the crowd. It was only then that I realized that they were barring me, that I wouldn’t go to school.”

The soldiers were there not to assist her, but to bar her entrance. Governor Orval Faubus, in defiance of a federal court order, had called out the National Guard to make sure she and the others did not attend Central High. Eckford later recalled that one of the women spat on her. A crowd of over 400 had gathered to prevent her attendance.

“I stood looking at the school— it looked so big! Just then the guards let some white students through. The crowd was quiet. I guess they were waiting to see what was going to happen. When I was able to steady my knees, I walked up to the guard who had let the white students in. He didn’t move. When I tried to squeeze past him, he raised his bayonet and then the other guards moved in and they raised their bayonets. They glared at me with a mean look and I was very frightened and didn’t know what to do. I turned around and the crowd came toward me. They moved closer and closer. Somebody started yelling, “Drag her over this tree! Let’s take care of that nigger!”

 Kasher, Steven. The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996. Print.

Fearing for her life, Elizabeth turned and tried to reach another bus stop, amid chants that she should be lynched and other threats of violence. Benjamin Fine, a reporter with the New York Times and one lone white woman, Grace Lorch, were there and protected her from the mob. Originally, all nine were to have walked in together, but the night before, the meeting place was changed, and Elizabeth’s family couldn’t afford a telephone, so they didn’t know.

Elizabeth had to return home that day, without having gone to school. Instead of excitement and new friends, she was afraid and risked her life. For the next two weeks, she studied at home. On September 27, the Little Rock Nine tried again. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order placing the Arkansas Guard under federal control and then ordered them to allow and facilitate the integration of the schools.

The members of the Little Rock Nine were:

The National Guard had to be deployed for the entire school year to allow the students to enter. Once inside, the students were unprotected and faced merciless constant harassment. Elizabeth was thrown down a flight of stairs by other students.

The following year, all high schools in Little Rock were closed, to prevent integration. Elizabeth continued studying at home, and in night school to obtain her diploma, eventually graduating from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Elizabeth went on to serve in the US Army for five years. After that, she has worked as a waitress, history teacher, welfare worker, unemployment and employment interviewer, and a military reporter. She is today a probation officer in Little Rock.

Sadly, Elizabeth’s trauma was not over. In spite of later appearing with one of those women who demonstrated against her in a show of solidarity, and receiving the Congressional Gold Medal from President Bill Clinton, more sadness came her way.

“On the morning of January 1, 2003, one of Eckford’s two sons, Erin Eckford, age 26, was shot and killed by police in Little Rock. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that the police officers had unsuccessfully tried to disarm him with a beanbag round after he had fired several shots from his rifle. When Eckford pointed his rifle towards them, the police officers shot him. His mother feared that his death was “suicide by police”. Erin, she said, had suffered from mental illness but had been off his prescribed medication for several years. ”

Associated Press, 2003

Today, Central High School is still in operation, with a student body of 2,466. It is the only high school in the nation designated a National Historic Site, for the bravery of the Little Rock Nine.