Annette John-Hall | Recalling victory at Little Rock

Posted: September 18, 2007

Her first-day-of-school nightmare was captured for the world to see - the infamous image of a young girl wearing a crisp cotton dress, her light-sensitive eyes shielded by sunglasses, as she walked numbly past a jeering white mob.

To tell what happened is to relive that day.

As one of the history-changing Little Rock Nine, the group of black students who bravely attempted to desegregate an Arkansas high school in 1957, Elizabeth Eckford still feels the searing hurt and pain.

Even after 50 years.

The emotion was evident yesterday at the National Constitution Center, where Eckford was inducted into the American National Tree in a ceremony commemorating the 220th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

She spoke eloquently of the group's attempt to desegregate Central High School through court order; about daily attacks by white students who slammed her against lockers; of others pushing their desks away so they wouldn't have to sit next to her; of how, even with the National Guard trailing 11 paces behind, she felt "totally alone."

Just then, Eckford's eyes started to mist. She stepped away from the lectern and took a minute to get herself together.

Hard to talk about

She's willing to take a walk through time - "a walk through pain," she says - despite being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder 27 years ago. She realizes the publicity she gets this year will go a long way toward imparting life lessons to the students she loves who may not ever have heard of the Little Rock Nine.

A generation after Brown v. Board of Education mandated that all children be given equal opportunity, Philadelphia public schools are all but resegregated. The good-quality education so cherished by Eckford's mother - so valued that she risked her daughter's safety for the chance to get it - is out of reach in 2007 to many students in Philadelphia and other poor districts, if test scores and dropout rates are any indication.

That fact isn't lost on Eckford, who believes there must be a "sincere intent" on government's part to assure that all children get a good education.

"There is so much unfinished business," she says.

Rather than integrate in 1958-59, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus closed all public schools, which meant that the only Little Rock schools available to attend that year were those in the city's small parochial system.

"When they closed the schools, white" students were affected, Eckford said. "That changed the conversation."

Eckford added that the dynamic is no different today.

That's why she continues to share her story, even when certain people come up to her to laud racial progress, to tell her disparities no longer exist.

"True reconciliation cannot happen until we honestly acknowledge our painful but shared past," she said.

The sad truth is that institutional racism is entrenched. Eckford believes that with all her heart. As proof, just look at what's happening in Jena, La., where six black youths recently were charged with attempted murder for fighting white students.

The black kids were provoked by seeing nooses hung by white kids on a tree.

As much as she's reluctant to, that's the reason Eckford shares her story. She'd rather be living a quiet life in Little Rock, where she works as a probation officer. Touring the country as a 65-year-old public speaker is the furthest thing from her mind.

"Fame and $5 will buy you a cup of coffee," she joked.

But after 50 years, Eckford understands that the clock is ticking. There's an urgent need to get her message across.

"Most of us are senior citizens now," she says of Little Rock Nine classmates Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas, Melba Pattillo, Terrence Roberts and Carlotta Walls.

"This is our last hurrah."


Annette John-Hall |

Watch a video of Elizabeth Eckford at the National Constitution Center at


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com. To read her recent work, go to http://go.philly.com./annette

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