A bench now on display across from Little Rock’s Central High School commemorates one key moment from the school’s desegregation. It is a replica of one Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine sat on in 1957 after being kept from entering the school by national guardsmen.
Tuesday’s unveiling coincided with the 61st anniversary of the event.
Central High School’s Memory Project aims to encourage students to remember past events of the high school and to keep the memory of the Civil Rights Movement alive.
In an attempt to desegregate, nine black students were invited to transfer to the all-white Central High School. The day before the students were to attend their first day at Central, the students had been warned of talks about protest and collectively decided to not face the demonstrators.
Eckford, however, did not learn of the decision because her family didn’t have a telephone. She showed up to Central the following day, only to find protestors angered by her presence. Arkansas National Guardsmen, sent by Gov. Orval Faubus to prevent the desegregation, blocked her from entering the school.
Black and white photos of the hostility Eckford encountered became iconic in the nation’s civil rights struggle.
She was surrounded by the mob, with some members spitting on her, calling her racial slurs, some even saying she should be hung from a tree. With nowhere else to go, she walked about two blocks in front of the school and spotted a bus bench.
During Tuesday’s ceremony, Eckford said that for some reason, she thought that if she could make it to the bench she would be safe.
"When I sat there September 4, 1957, I felt terribly alone. I was encouraged by two reporters that were here. I was surrounded behind me by local reporters who took it upon themselves to be a human barrier between me and the angry demonstrators," Eckford said.
Eventually a city bus arrived and took her away.
Eckford says it was until the 1990s that she began to come to terms with what she experienced as one of the Little Rock Nine. The 76-year-old said she's happy to return and continue working toward a "true reconciliation."
Eckford applauds students who continue to be curious about the past and says they have helped her come to terms with what happened on that day in 1957.
"That exploration really was my own exposure therapy. Nobody claims to have a cure for post-traumatic stress disorder, but I don’t cry anymore when I’m talking about the past, and that is because of the efforts of students. It is very, very endearing when students want to know about the past," she said.
The students of the Memory Project also created an audio walking tour that will allow users to take a guided walk and hear about events that occurred on that day at Central High in 1957.