September 4, 1957 was supposed to be the first day of school for nine black students with good grades and superb coping skills, selected to help Arkansas comply with the 1954 Supreme Court ruling to integrate its public schools. The old “separate but equal” plan had failed. Black students in Little Rock had been kept separate, but their shoddy schools and tattered textbooks were anything but equal to what most white kids had.
Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), heard the news reports of a white mob assembling at Little Rock Central High School, attended by over 2,000 white students. She thought the young people would be safer going as a group and arranged for them to meet at her house to go together.
Everyone got the message to meet at the Bates’ home and travel together except the Eckford family. They didn’t have a telephone.
ELIZABETH ECKFORD WALKED ALONE
When Elizabeth Eckford stepped off the city bus that morning, she was engulfed by a crowd of frenzied white people who followed her, screaming the N-word all the way to Central High, two blocks away.
Will Counts, a young white photographer, snapped Elizabeth’s picture just as a student behind her, named Hazel, pinched up her face and hollered, “Go back to Africa!” mouth wide open, her face forever frozen in a mask of hate.
When Elizabeth finally reached the front doors of the school, it looked like a war zone. The Arkansas National Guard, ordered by Governor Faubus to defy the federal law, let white students in, but, when Elizabeth tried to squeeze past, they blocked her way with raised rifles.
After several attempts, Elizabeth decided to head back to the bus stop. Even then, the racists followed her, cursing and spitting. Boys made loud plans to get a rope, wrap it around her neck, and hang her.
As if from a great distance, she heard one white woman address the mob. “Shame on all of you. Why don’t you leave her alone? She’s scared. She’s only a girl.” It was a glimmer of sanity in a world gone mad. Several journalists, hesitant to get involved in “the story,” placed themselves between Elizabeth and the bigots. It took 35 minutes for the bus to come.
When she got home, Elizabeth changed her clothes. The new skirt she’d spent so much time sewing was covered in spit. She never wore it again.
EISENHOWER DISPATCHED FEDERAL TROOPS
For three weeks, the mayor, courts, school officials, and civil rights activists held a series of tense meetings. They eventually came to an agreement.
On September 23, the black students, including Elizabeth, met at Daisy Bates’ home to be escorted by the police. Again, a mob of several hundred white parents was waiting for them outside the school, hissing, crying, cursing. Reporters came from around the world; several black reporters were attacked. Halfway through the morning, the nine black teens were sent home. The school could not protect them.
That night, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke on TV, outraged by the attack on black reporters and threats to the nine students. This display of ignorance and racism was a national embarrassment. He had given the state time to sort it out, but time was up. “Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts,” he said.
On September 25, the whole world watched as Elizabeth and the others walked up the stairs to the front entrance of the school, this time protected by federal troops.
HELL AT LITTLE ROCK CENTRAL HIGH
From a distance it seemed like a new day in America — black and white students studying together in a place where, just a few weeks earlier, it had seemed impossible. If this were a fairytale, the story would end here with “And they all lived happily ever after.” But this was real life.
For a few weeks, some white students braved ridicule and dirty looks to befriend the black students, but after awhile, most gave up. It was easier to blend in and remain silent than to speak out.
The black students, now known as the “Little Rock Nine,” were separated and sent to different classrooms for the remainder of the year. The school made each of them agree not to join the glee club, band, or sports team; not to run for student council; not to attend any school dances or proms.
After the reporters and soldiers left, life at Central settled into one long obstacle course for the brave teens. Boys threw everything from spit balls to acid. Girls put broken glass near the black students’ gym lockers. Teachers refused to get involved. It was a year of hell for the nine.
STEPS TOWARD RECONCILIATION
In 1992, Central High School was declared a National Historic Landmark. A Visitors Center was later added nearby, on Daisy Bates Drive.
Will Counts’ photo of Elizabeth and Hazel was named one of the top 100 photographs of the 20th century by the Associated Press, and Counts was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In 1997, Counts brought Elizabeth and Hazel together, so that Hazel could apologize for the way she’d behaved as a teen. The two middle-aged women posed in front of Central High. Photos from 1957 and 1997 were put on a poster titled “Reconciliation.” It was intended as a sign of hope that people can change and that, someday, racism will be a thing of the past in America.
Two years later, President Bill Clinton awarded the Little Rock Nine the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest non-military honor in the United States. It was approved with a vote by members of both houses of Congress.
In 2007, while running for president, Barack Obama said, “Fifty years ago, nine young men and women showed the world that in the face of impossible odds, ordinary people could do extraordinary things.”
The next year, the Little Rock Nine were invited to attend the inauguration of America’s first black president.
TO GO DEEPER
A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School, by Carlotta Walls Lanier with Lisa Frazier Page, Foreword by Bill Clinton, Ballantine, 2009
Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High by Melba Pattilo Beals, Washington Square Press, 1995
Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration by Shelley Tougas, Compass Point Books, 2011
“Through a Lens, Darkly” by David Margolick, Vanity Fair, September 2007
Little Rock 9, Arkansas 1957 (10 mins)