No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Iconic Photo: Photo 20

Elizabeth Eckford
image circa 1957 by Will Counts

On September 4, 1957 Elizabeth Eckford became the first Black student to integrate a White Southern school.

Later she would come to be known as one of the Little Rock Nine, the first nine students to enter a previously segregated school, thus helping to change the direction of education in the United States, as well as the direction of the Civil Rights movement. However, on September 4, the Little Rock Nine had arranged to meet and enter the school for the first time together. The meeting location was changed the night before, without Eckford knowing, thus causing her to arrive at the school and enter alone.

Eckford approached Little Rock Central High School on her own. The school was surrounded not only by an angry mob but also by the National Guard, which actually worked WITH the mob in attempt to keep Eckford from entering the school (under orders of the Arkansas Governor). She then went to the local bus stop where the crowd attacked and attempted to lynch then-15 year old Eckford. Finally, two white people (one of whom recalls that she reminded him of his own 15-year old daughter) surrounded and protected her from the mob, also trying to comfort her in the middle of the crisis.

The next day the National Guard was removed, with local police stepping in in an attempt to protect the nine students. However, the mob grew larger. On the third day President Eisenhower sent in the United States Army to protect the nine students and accompany them into the school. The Army remained stationed at the school for the rest of the school year, assigned specifically to ensure that the Little Rock Nine were able to attend the previously all white high school. Even so, Eckford was thrown down a flight of stairs by other students later in the school year.

The next year ALL Little Rock high schools were closed. As a result, Eckford did not graduate from Little Rock Central High School, but she successfully earned her high school diploma through correspondence and night courses. Eckford went on to receive a BA in History from Central State University in Ohio.

Eckford was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, along with the other members of the Little Rock Nine, by President Clinton. The Little Rock Nine were also awarded the Spingarn Medal for their work to desegregate high schools in the south.

Eckford specifically has also shared the Father Joseph Blitz award for doing reconciliation work in the years following integration of the schools. She has gone on to do public speaking with Hazel Bryan Massery, the white woman that appears in the above photograph obviously screaming at Eckford. Massery was a known segregationist that fought against integration. However, towards the end of the last century the two women appeared together to speak publicly at reconciliation rallies. It is with Massery that Eckford shared the Father Joseph Blitz award.

To learn more about Eckford read specifically about Brown versus the Board of Education (the Supreme Court ruling that initiated the de-segregatation of schools in the United States), and about the Little Rock Nine.

You can also read more about Eckford and the particular moment shown in the above photograph in Vanity Fair.

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