“Under extraordinary circumstances, ordinary people can do extraordinary things”
By Joe McDaniel, Jr., member of the Commission on Racial Justice & Reconciliation
The above quote by Elizabeth Eckford — a member of the Little Rock Nine — captures the essence of Eckford’s experience as she and eight other black students, on September 25, 1957, sought to test the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that segregation in American public schools was unconstitutional.
On Thursday evening, October 6, 2022, Eckford, now 82 years old, participated in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast’s Commission on Racial Justice & Reconciliation’s Speaker Series of Truth-Telling (in partnership with the Equity Project Alliance and the Alpha Kappa Alpha National Sorority), to share her experience, not only of how the events of September impacted the course of her life, but how they also impacted the national discourse of race relations then, and their lingering impact today.
On that fateful September day, Eckford, who was only fifteen years old, arrived at Little Rock Central High School alone. Her family didn’t have a telephone, so she did not receive word of the arrangements that had been made for the students to meet and enter the school as a group. As she ventured to the school door, she was surrounded by an all-white angry mob, which spit and yelled obscenities at her. As she progressed forward, she was blocked from entering the school by the Arkansas National Guard, which was acting on the orders of segregationist Governor Orville Faubus. She was eventually chased away from the school with the mob in pursuit, yelling “lynch her.” Terrified because the memory of Emmet Till’s lynching came to her mind, she sat down at a bus stop. As she began to cry, a New York Times reporter put his arm around her and told her not "... to let these people see you cry.” Another person, a white woman, also showed empathy by talking to Eckford. The mob then turned its vitriol on both the reporter and the white woman. All these encounters were captured by a photographer.
It was only after the photos of these events were seen around the world, showing the pernicious evils of America’s Jim Crow society, instead of the tranquility of a true democracy (where all men are created equally and, more importantly, at a time when the nation’s foreign policy was focused on encouraging the creation of more democracies and preventing the spread of communism), that President Eisenhower sent 1,200 armed soldiers from the 101st Airborne to ensure that the nine students were allowed to safely enter the school. It is worth noting here that all the black soldiers that were part of the 101st Airborne were reassigned to other duty stations and not sent to Little Rock because it would have been unseemly to have black soldiers ordering white citizens to remove themselves and make room for the students to enter the school. Although each student was assigned a personal bodyguard, Eckford described that the horrible harassment each of the nine students faced lasted for the entire school year. Apparently, the soldiers were given orders to not get close to the nine students so as not to witness any of the attacks on them. As a result, one of the students had acid thrown in his face. The students were repeatedly attacked with sacks full of combination locks, body slammed into lockers, and had rolls of flaming toilet paper thrown over the walls into the toilet stalls whenever they went to the restroom. Eckford recounted that during the entire school year, she only made friends with two white students. Others were too afraid to socialize with them, although on more than one occasion, a white student would tip them off about attacks that were planned for the next day. She learned that these attacks were coordinated by parents of white students.
After a year of enduring this torment, the nine did not return to Little Rock Central High School because the school board, rather than allowing another year of integration, shut down the entire school district. Eckford moved with her family to St. Louis to finish her high school education. She did not talk about the experiences for decades, and endured years of depression, finally being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder later in her adult life. To this day, she is frightened and flinches whenever she hears loud noises because such sounds give her flashbacks of the angry mob she encountered on September 25, 1957.
When asked about her greatest takeaway from the experience, Eckford said that she was just an ordinary person who showed that “under extraordinary circumstances, ordinary people can do extraordinary things.” I contend that her bravery in the face of the screaming mob and her endurance during that horrible school year truly represents what John F. Kennedy espoused in his book, "Profiles in Courage." In 1998, President Bill Clinton presented the Little Rock Nine with the Congressional Gold Medal for their important role in the civil rights movement. They were also invited, ten years later, by President Barack Obama to his inauguration.
The lasting impact of Eckford’s actions demonstrates that “White Supremacy” must be as courageously faced today as she faced it on September 25, 1957, all at the tender age of fifteen.
For more information on the Commission on Racial Justice & Reconciliation and sponsored events, visit www.diocgc.org/racial-justice-and-reconciliation.