Elizabeth Eckford, who was one of nine black students to desegregate Little Rock's Central High School in 1957, recounted her experiences to a crowd Wednesday. She spoke in a lecture sponsored by the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators at Little Rock’s Statehouse Convention Center.
Brought on stage in a wheelchair by a ranger with the National Park Service, the 78-year-old Eckford was greeted by silent visual applause; a stark contrast to the chaos she endured as a member of the Little Rock Nine.
"For the person being bullied, it made me feel that those people who turned their backs thought I was getting what I deserved, and the normal leadership of the community was silent for a long time," Eckford said. "When you’re silent, other people are speaking for you."
Eckford was 14 years old when she and eight other teenagers first attempted to desegregate Central. The other eight had been notified by telephone the night before what would have been the group’s first attempt to enter the school on Sept. 4, 1957, warning them of protests and a blockade by the Arkansas National Guard.
But Eckford’s family didn’t own a phone, so she didn't get the word that the effort was being delayed. When Eckford arrived alone at the school's front entrance, she was singled out by the white mob and prevented from entering the school.
"One of the things that people were shouting at me was 'black so-and-so, black so-and-so.' You know, when I was growing up, you could start a fight if you called another negro child black. We had been taught to be ashamed of that word," Eckford said. "But not so now, I hope, I hope, I hope."
Now, a reconstructed bench across from the school memorializes the place where she sought refuge from the mob, guarded by reporters and a local teacher.
After the nine were eventually allowed to attend the school, all were bullied relentlessly for the rest of the school year. Eckford calmly recounted what she later found out was a systematic campaign of brutality perpetrated by white students, organized by adults and enabled by the school's administration.
"Being body slammed into wall lockers was something that occurred every day. When they decided to walk on our heels going down the hallway, that lasted for about a week. But these kids, I now know, were directed by an adult, organized by an adult, and they went to this woman’s house every evening after school to plan for the next day."
Eckford said that while the nine’s actions were important to the cause of civil rights, it wasn’t because of the school district or the state’s motivations.
"The desegregation of Central High School was tokenism. The district intended limited, token desegregation. They felt like if they had a few darker-skinned people in the school, it would count as desegregation."
Eckford also mentioned late civil rights lawyer and Democratic State Rep. John Walker, who sued the Little Rock School Board numerous times over the district’s failure to fully integrate.
Eckford eventually served in the military and as a probation officer after graduating from Central and from college. Although the historical record says otherwise, Eckford said Wednesday that the nine were not remarkable people.
"Ordinary people, when in extraordinary circumstances, can do extraordinary things. I’m an ordinary person, no different from other teenagers at that time. I’m different now because I used my voice, whereas I didn’t as a kid."
Eckford is one of eight surviving members of the Little Rock Nine, along with Thelma Mothershed Wair, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Terrence Roberts, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Minnijean Brown Trickey and Melba Pattillo Beals.
Jefferson Thomas deid in 2010, and Daisy Bates, a local NAACP leader who helped coordinate the efforts of the Little Rock Nine, died in 1999.