Home > Uncategorized > Elizabeth Eckford, the Little Rock Nine and Desegregation – posted 2/26/2023

Elizabeth Eckford, the Little Rock Nine and Desegregation – posted 2/26/2023

Before going south on a civil rights trip organized by the Nation Magazine, I had never been to Little Rock, Arkansas. I was only vaguely familiar with the struggle to integrate schools there in the 1950’s. There was an iconic photograph I knew about. It showed a young African-American girl with an angry mob behind her.

On the trip, we got to meet Elizabeth Eckford, who was that girl and who was one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. It was an epic confrontation that is little talked about today.

In the first part of the 1950’s, schools were not integrated in Arkansas. Then Brown v Board of Education happened and there was Brown II in 1955 where the U.S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation with “all deliberate speed”. Still, blacks who took action against segregation could be arrested, beaten or killed, especially if they entered whites-only areas.

Although 200 students volunteered, Little Rock school officials picked nine teenagers to become Central High’s first African-American students. On the first day of school on September 3, 1957, a mob formed and the nine did not go to school. They planned to go the next day. Because her family did not have a phone, Eckford missed the coordinating call and she made her way to school separately. She did not see the other eight students.

When she got to school, she was all alone except for the mob of several hundred white people screaming things like “Go back to where you came from” and “Go home! Whites have rights too!”. As Eckford approached the school’s entrance, she saw soldiers with rifles. She believed the soldiers were there to protect her but instead of helping, they blocked her way. They were members of the Arkansas National Guard sent by Gov. Orville Faubus who opposed desegregation.

Turned away and spat upon, Eckford walked away followed by a harassing and threatening crowd. A white teenager behind her screamed “Go home n—er!”. One person in the crowd suggested to drag her to a tree and hang her. A group of reporters formed a protective ring around her while Eckford waited at a bus stop to go home.

A white woman, Grace Lorch, who was a supporter of civil rights, came to Eckford’s aid. She scolded the crowd saying “She’s just a little girl”. She helped a terrified Eckford get on the bus and protected her against the mob.

When the other eight students got to the high school, the soldiers also blocked them. For more than two weeks, the black students stayed home until a federal court judge ruled against use of National Guard troops to block them. When the students returned, a riot ensued after the black students entered the school. The students had to flee for safety reasons. Photo images of Little Rock went the equivalent of viral, internationally.

At that point, President Eisenhower sent 101st Airborne Division troops into Little Rock. He also federalized the Arkansas National Guard. The students were then able to enter the high school escorted by soldiers. Gov. Faubus continued to oppose desegregation saying, “We are now an occupied territory”. Faubus argued that the Supreme Court had overstepped its constitutional authority in Brown.

For the next year, the nine black students endured an almost unbelievable amount of physical and verbal abuse. Eckford described the treatment. A group of white students made it their business to torment the black students. Although troops were there for protection, the tormenters attacked when the troops were out of eyesight. They physically attacked and shoved the black students, spat on them, tripped them and threw sharp pencils at them.

The tormenters scalded them in the locker room showers after gym class. They threw food at them. The school received bomb threats. One of the nine, Minnijean Brown-Trickey, got expelled in February 1958 for dropping chili on two boys who had attacked and harassed her. In May 1958, Ernest Green became the first black students to graduate from Central High School.

Eckford experiences PTSD still as a result of her school-related trauma. She remains very sensitive to any loud noises or light flashes.

That summer in 1958, Gov. Faubus made a decision to close all the schools in Little Rock. Little Rock residents voted 19,470- 7,561 to oppose integration. The school board tried to fire 44 teachers who favored integration. During the year the high school was closed, 97% of white students found an educational alternative. Only 50% of black students did.

In June 1959, a court found the school closing unconstitutional. Public schools re-opened in August 1959. Many white students left public school permanently to attend all-white segregation academies. Only two of the nine black students went back to Central. It took until 1972 for Little Rock to be fully integrated. I would note that President Eisenhower was the first president since Reconstruction to use federal troops to enforce civil rights.

In a podcast with Chris Hayes, I heard Minnijean Brown-Trickey explain that she went to Central because people did not want her to be there. She described herself as “irrepressible”. She wanted to disprove the myth that white kids were smarter than black kids.

The Little Rock struggle is now 66 years ago. While student bodies in America are more diverse than ever before, public schools remain highly segregated along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Black children are still relegated to separate and unequal schools. They are five times as likely as white students to attend schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity.

Ignoring the Brown court decision, school re-segregation has been America’s de facto agenda. Reasons for the backsliding include lifting of court desegregation orders, discriminatory housing practices that foster racially segregated neighborhoods and a failure of will to follow through on desegregation. The retrenchment is rooted in a vast complacency and a massive unwillingness to acknowledge the problem.

The Little Rock Nine provide a compelling counter-narrative that shows desegregation can be done. We all owe a debt to Elizabeth Eckford and the eight other brave students who had the courage to face down a monster.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. jlewandohotmailcom
    February 27, 2023 at 1:00 am

    Thanks again! This was talked about at our house, even in the wilds of Burbank. The right wing has dressed in suits and ties and built a machine to fight this current battle for white supremacy. It’s very sophisticated about tapping into the fear and rage and using it to justify rolling back civil rights. Our Russian friend, who’s more outspoken than seems safe, bless him, shared this post recently. “It is a mistake to think that Putin and his propagandists are shoving something into the heads of unhappy Russians there. They don’t kill, they take. They take what lies on the furthest shelves of consciousness, the desire to kill and rob.”

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