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This Civil Right Pioneer is Still Fighting Against Segregation Decades Later

Elizabeth Eckford, a member of the Little Rock Nine, hopes that her story influences people to be respectful of others despite their differences.

Aaron Barksdale

Aaron Barksdale

Image via Kirk Jordan.

More than 60 years ago 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford had the entire world up in arms as photos of an angry mob made of men, women and children obstructed her from going to school. Usually, going to school isn’t thought of as a rebellious act for most teenagers, but in 1957 that wasn’t the case. Eckford was one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine black kids who made history by becoming the first students to integrate the all-white Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Now, in this time of social and political division, Eckford has released a book, The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Central High.

The cover of Eckford’s book is an illustration of the infamous photo taken of her the first day she unsuccessfully attempted to enter Central High. In the photo, Eckford is surrounded by angry white people spewing hate and giving her dirty looks. She remains calm with her held high, seemingly unbothered by the crowd. However, in her book, she describes the anxiety she felt from the crowd’s threats of violence and the unwillingness of the state’s national guard to provide her with protection.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the groundbreaking Brown vs. Board of Education case that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Even after the SCOTUS ruling, there was a strong opposition to desegregation, and the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, ordered the state’s national guard to bar the students’ entry into the school. The ruling put the federal government at odds with the many state-level policies, particularly in southern states when Jim Crow laws— racially biased policies that enforced segregation— were still in effect.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Discrimination persists and varies from place to place.

In her own words in the book, Eckford recounts her experiences as a teenager thrust into a challenging situation, including dealing with constant verbal and physical harassment by her white peers. Although the excruciating treatment of the Little Rock Nine happened decades ago, America still has a long way to go in achieving true racial equality and the uprising of white supremacist events, such as the deadly rally in Charlottesville and fatal encounters between people of color and the police, prove that issues Eckford’s book highlights are just as important now as they were then.


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VICE Impact was able to speak with Eckford about what it was like to integrate a school with such open hostility and what she hope’s people will take away from the book.

VICE Impact: What did it feel like the day you arrived alone to Central High School and were greeted by an angry mob?

Elizabeth Eckford: I was terrified, scared, shocked and I felt terribly alone.

How did you find the courage to go back to school the following day? What made you persist?

We realized that a lot of people were depending on us. Thelma Mothershed had a serious heart condition, and I did not feel that I could leave her behind.

I shared my experiences from Central High School because I want young people to realize they can lift someone up with kindness

Your bravery has been recognized by state and national leaders, was there one honor that has been the most significant or exciting to receive?

The Congressional Gold Medal was the most significant. It was the first national recognition that we received. Most recently, I was recognized as a Champion of Justice by the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization created the Legacy Museum and featured my image to represent the period of segregation. I was touched and honored by the efforts of Bryan Stenson and the entire Equal Justice Initiative team.

(Bettmann/Getty Images)

Why was it important for you to share your experiences as a member of the Little Rock Nine in your book?

I shared my experiences from Central High School because I want young people to realize they can lift someone up with kindness. It is supportive to one who has been set apart and harassed. To that person, passers-by seem as if they don’t care; that they think you are getting what you deserve. You can be the change by treating the despised person kindly. Language can be powerful.

Why do you believe that integration was such a controversial and divisive issue, particularly in Arkansas at that time?

Four small Arkansas school districts desegregated on their own due to economic reasons. Central High was the first major test of the Brown decision and it was where a conflict between state and federal government was resolved. It proved to be a constitutional crisis between the state and federal government and it was resolved in two ways: by a federal court order to prevent the Governor from further interference, and by the President sending in troops to ensure that we got into school safely, disbanding the mob.

What were some of the challenges you faced during your time at Central High School? How did you overcome them?

Not having any protection. The Arkansas National Guard soldiers followed behind us several paces behind. The Principal would ignore battery reports if they weren’t witnessed by an adult.

Even with a witness, most reports were ignored anyway. Most attacks happened in the hallways. Something happened every day, but we could not predict where or when it would happen. We were knocked down stairs, kicked, scalded in gym showers, body-slammed into wall lockers. We were generally knocked-about every day. It never ceased.

We overcame them by returning to school. One day I simply couldn’t take it and requested my Grandfather to pick me up, but I returned the next day.

How would you say America’s political climate and level of racial tolerance has changed since desegregation?

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Discrimination persists and varies from place to place.

What do you think is the appropriate response to fighting the racial injustice that still continues in America?

Name it; challenge it; call attention to it.

What advice do you have for young black Americans who are fighting oppression?

Prepare yourself as well as possible for future opportunities, because if you’re not prepared, you won’t be considered.

In 2018, people will head to the ballots for the midterm elections. How do you recommend people take civic action in support of equal rights for people of color?

Study the issues and the candidate’s records. Don’t just follow the crowd.