Long, Lonely Walk: Fifty years ago, as one of the Little Rock Nine, Elizabeth Eckford marched into history

Will Counts / Arkansas Democrat Gazette-AP

Long, Lonely Walk: Fifty years ago, as one of the Little Rock Nine, Elizabeth Eckford marched into history

On Sept. 23, 1957, nine black high school students were greeted by an angry mob of more than 1,000 Little Rock residents protesting the integration of Little Rock Central High School. Before long, police had to escort the students to safety . This fall, Little Rock will celebrate the 50th anniversary of that pivotal moment.

  Federal troops escort members of the Little Rock Nine at Central High School in 1957.
Photo Credit: Central High Museum Collection / University Of Arkansas At Little Rock Archives Photo


By Ellis Cose


Sept. 24, 2007 issue – The image is among the most iconic in civil-rights history: a dignified black girl in a prim, white-and-black dress marches through a hostile mob intent on keeping her from school. Fifty years after it first flashed around the world, that image retains its power—evoking sorrow, even anger, that one so young would face such cruelty. Now a 65-year-old woman, Elizabeth Eckford still bears scars from that long, lonely walk as one of the Little Rock Nine: teenagers charged with integrating that city’s finest high school in 1957. “I’m the only one who says I wouldn’t do it again,” said Eckford in an interview at the Little Rock courthouse where she works as a probation officer.

This month, Little Rock will commemorate the date, 50 years ago, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to escort black children to Central High. In that moment, Little Rock became a synonym for hate. After claiming that desegregation would lead to violence, Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to keep black children from attending the school. Meanwhile, the black students designated to integrate Central High made plans to enter as a group. Eckford’s family had no phone, so she never got the message. She came alone, only to be sent away by Faubus’s soldiers and left to the angry mob.

No black child got in on the appointed day. Three weeks later, armed with a judge’s order prohibiting Faubus from interfering, the students were spirited in through a side door (the mob was so unruly, however, police decided the Nine could not stay). In the weeks that followed, they endured unrelenting abuse. They never believed the task would be easy, but they had no idea how hellish it would become. Minnijean Brown Trickey was expelled for a fight she didn’t start. “If we knew what it was going to be, we would have been too scared to go,” says Trickey, who returned to Little Rock after many years away to care for an aged parent. Decades later, Eckford realized she suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. For years, she could not work. In her current job since 1999, she has found a measure of peace: it has taken “a long time getting there, a long time to talk about the past without crying.”

Eckford today, at her former high school

Charles Ommanney / Getty Images for Newsweek

Now and Then: Eckford today, at her former high school

Mostly, the Nine have flourished. Many got advanced degrees. All moved away—for a while, at least—and Little Rock tried to move on. Mayor Mark Stodola says it’s time to put the past aside. He says Little Rock never deserved its racist reputation and that “the people who want to continue to look to the past are an impediment to where we want to go for the future.” Ralph Brodie, a Central High football player and student-body president at the time of the crisis, says the reputations of many were unfairly tarnished by the actions of a few. Most people at Central were receptive to the black enrollees, he says, yet the world focused on “problem students—25 maybe, a minuscule percentage.” The rest “did everything they could to make that schoolyear work,” says Brodie, a lawyer and member of Central’s 50th Anniversary Commission.

Thelma Mothershed Wair, one of the Little Rock Nine

Charles Ommanney / Getty Images for Newsweek

Overcoming: Thelma Mothershed Wair, one of the Little Rock Nine

The black students do not remember things that way. “The tone was set by a couple of hundred students engaged in this reign of terror,” says Ernest Green, one of the Nine and an executive with Lehman Brothers. “The silence was deafening. We would have appreciated some of them speaking out when all of this harassment was going on.” Eckford also dismisses Brodie’s point. Those who were silent, she says, are just unwilling to “think of themselves as bad people.”

Today, like much of the rest of America, Little Rock grapples with a continuing achievement gap in its schools, economic distress in disproportionately minority neighborhoods and mistrust among competing communities and public officials. Earlier this year Central High student Brandon Love drew a straight line from the past to the present. In an article in the Arkansas Times and elsewhere, he observed that his Advanced Placement classes were overwhelmingly white: “As an African American and the student body president, I have encountered A Tale of Two Centrals … As the only African American in most of my classes, I experience firsthand what some dismiss as ‘subtle’ racism,” he wrote. Nancy Rousseau, the transplanted New Yorker who is principal at Central, acknowledges that more whites than blacks take AP classes—but she blames differences in preparation and achievement, not discrimination. “That’s an issue that we’re dealing with, an issue that, unfortunately, is universal,” she says. “There are places that are overcoming it, and I want us to be one of them.”

The Supreme Court agrees that focusing on past racial wrongs will not yield solutions for the future—as made clear in June by its ruling against voluntary school-desegregation plans. But there is still a point in remembering how we got here, and remembering how determined some people were to keep Americans apart—if only because it reminds us of why it remains so hard for us to come together.

© 2007 Newsweek, Inc. |


I admire the strength it took the Little Rock Nine to endure so that black students who came after them could have a right to an education that was not “separate, but, unequal”.

For nearly five decades, Little Rock Central High School has been an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Over the next few years, schools across the country developed plans for integration; for Little Rock, high schools were to integrate by September 1957. But a few weeks before school was to begin, Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prohibit black American students from entering Central High.

The governor’s orders were overturned by a federal judge, but public opinion was still strongly against integration. With the arrival of the first day of school, Central High became a part of history.

Today, September 23, 2007, is the 50TH Anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School. The anniversary to be celebrated in Little Rock will highlight  the opening of a new visitor center that will serve as a gateway for the Central High School experience. Personal accounts, photos, a theater, artifacts and artwork will be included.

The days surrounding the September anniversary will be marked by a festival and a ceremony on Central High’s front lawn. Check for more information.

Did you know that Central High School is a part of the state of Arkansas’s National Park Service registry?

In addition to being part of the National Park Service, Central High is a fully operating high school with more than 2,300 students. If you visit today, you’ll see that the school looks much as it did 50 years ago. Across the street, the Park Service has turned a Mobil gas station into an interim visitor center; it offers ranger-led programs, interpretive displays and publications, exhibits and programs.

Free tours of the high school are by reservation only and can be made by contacting the visitor center. Info: 501-374-1957,

But, for a more poignant, and personal view on what Little Rock means to the original Little Rock “Nine”, please log onto the following link:
Did you know that in 1999 the Little Rock Nine each received the Congressional Gold Medal-our nation’s highest civilian honor-for their efforts to desegregate Little Rock Central High School?

Reading the news article, I am struck by how blacks and whites view the issue of race, separation, social isolation and segregation.

It wasn’t just “a few bad apples.”

The white people did not suffer from being spit on, cursed at, pelted by debris, followed around and stomped on, kicked and bruised and yelled at, and will not remember the events of Little Rock the same way Elizabeth Eckford and the rest of the Nine did.

Selective memory of the oppressor works that way. Cognitive dissonance of: “We never behaved that way. It was just a few who did”, is always the cowardly, cheap cop-out excuse given. The whole student body gave the Little Rock Nine hell EVERYDAY. The whole student body, and teachers, saw wrong done daily, and the majority of them sat back and let cruelty and mistreatment rule the day.

The very few white students who did make an effort to reach across the racial divide were told by teachers, and white parents, to stay away from the Nine. Those white students did try, but, the whole white community pushed them away from treating their fellow classmates—their fellow human beings—as normal people.

 I think of the way these brave young people were mistreated in their time, and I wonder how white students would have handled this hateful behaviour if it was directed at them under the same circumstances? White students of today who suffer a few verbal taunts with the words, “Honky” or “white cracker”, will never know what it is like to be treated as less than human in the fight to challenge a racist system that sought to destroy an entire race of people through humiliation, degradation and pathological, institutionalized white supremacy.

I cannot in anyway see what white students who attend a predominantly black school in 2007 can be compared to what the Little Rock Nine experienced. In no way have I seen vicious, savage mobs of black PARENTS, black STUDENTS, and black TEACHERS attacking and cursing at white students the way the Little Rock Nine suffered. Unless it came in under the radar, no where in this country have white students been spit on, had things thrown at them, and treated as if they had leprosy just because they were white in the EXACT SAME WAY the Nine suffered.

On a daily basis.

For days.

For weeks.

Months of isolation in classrooms.

By themselves, as if they were some disease that was catching. Just because of the color of their skin. Just because they wanted a fair education on an equal level.

Whatever white students have experienced at all-black schools, pales in comparison to what the Little Rock Nine went through.

Ms. Eckford herself stated she would not go through this again if she could do it over. She is obviously still suffering from the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But, to say that Ms. Eckford suffered PTSD is an understatement. ALL of the Little Rock Nine suffered tremendously just to get this hypocritical country to live up to its ideals. The vitriol those brave students endured and its psychological effect is something we will never be able to comprehend.

That there are still some white parents alive now in 2007 who teach their children to hate and call black children, “Nigger”, cannot be denied. That there are still white parents now in 2007 America who teach their children to look at black people as the horrible “Others” still happens in America.

And believe it or not, those parents who teach racial hatred have not gone the way of the dinosaurs.

White people like those during the Little Rock integration had children and grandchildren, and those children learned from those relatives.

White supremacy is not dead.

You see it in housing disparity.

Educational disparity.

Economic disparity.

Judicial disparity.

Social disparity.

Every where.

White students today have never faced what the Little Rock Nine faced.

What white students go through when they attend a predominantly black or Latino school cannot begin to be compared to the same that Ms. Eckford and the Nine endured.

America thinks she is only hurting black people by not giving EVERYONE a decent and equitable education.

In the end, America only slits her own throat.

Many citizens think that if their neighborhoods get new school buildings with all the bells and whistles, that that might be a way to solve some of the issues surrounding poor student performance. As far as I’m concerned, it is not the building that houses the student that is of utmost consideration. It is the student inside who must be filled with an education that takes her  far in this life, and continues to take her beyond the life she started out with when she was born.

New buildings would be nice, but, before the school districts run out and start buying up land to build new schools, maybe they should try upgrading the present buildings they have: HVAC, mechanical, plumbing, electrical wiring, etc. Unless a building is overrun with lead paint (not many of those left around, but, some still are standing), or completely uninhabitable or dangerous for the students health [falling ceiling tiles, crumbling walls, non-working plumbing, etc.] or completely in need of demolishing, school boards can renovate the existing buildings they have now, instead of building a new school which more than likely will be located most of the time in an affluent area, as opposed to an urban area.

New buildings are nice.

But, better to work with what you have.

And if new schools are to be erected, citizens better be ready to ante up with bond elections, and higher taxes. (Which even I as a non-parent do not mind paying at all. Anything that helps ALL students, I am willing to be a part of.)

New schools are not cheap, they cost. And somebody is going to have to foot the bill.

Many citizens desire for a more “blended staff” that embodies high quality teachers with years of  superb skills and experiences under their belts, to better serve the student body. A staff that truly represents a more diverse range of racial and ethnic viewpoints and life experiences to bring to the table.

That would be wonderful, if…..

-affirmative action programs (among just a few) were not being gutted and dismantled. Remember last year’s affirmative action referendum in Michigan? AA was voted out because many whites (and overwhelmingly, white women) voted against AA because they feared the old saw, “All them minorities are stealing our jobs and our right to go to the big university”. As long as minority students get crappy educations that do not prepare them for a rigorous university curriculum; as long as minority students who DO meet the requirements of the Harvards, the Yales, the Princetons, etc., and those same students are denied admission on some excuse that they did not obtain enough points, or electives, or this test, or that test, or did not receive enough college preparatory courses, etc.; as long as minority students are barred from getting a higher education, thereby earning a degree, thereby, (hopefully) being hired to obtain skills/credentials, years of experience, as long as minority students have their legs cut out from under them with sub-standard, un-equal poor elementary/junior high/senior high school educations, and as long as every attempt they make to enter an institution of higher learning, to learn, to graduate to be hired, to be given tenure (university), to be given positions (elementary/junior/high) to pass on their hard-earn knowledge—, as long as those young people who strive to achieve and succeed are denied a chance to better themselves, we can ALL (parents and non-parents) expect many, many children to fall behind. Therefore, we can all expect to get less more highly educated, highly qualified teachers in the future.

Civil rights are under attack, and have been since Reagan. What little gains minorities have acquired have been slowly destroyed as the decades went by. And people did not have their eyes open to realize that. The past racist climate of de jure Jim Crow segregation (social, political, educational,etc.) never went away. Brown v. Board was immediately attacked after it was written into law.

And with the present Roberts SCOTUS, whatever gains that students could have received from those schools districts that willingly tried to create racial diversity, is dying and being trampled into the ground.

Highly experienced, highly credentialed teachers? Not much chance of many of them coming down the pipe in the years ahead if many universities and schools are sanctioned for trying to meet diversity that will in the end strengthen America.

Student ratios would be a different thing if the current racial climate was more true to the principles of a true democracy of equality. If difference was no longer castigated and vilified. If difference was not something to be hated and disparaged.

 In a perfect world, there would be student ratios in which no one group is in the minority. No matter what the class level, no matter what the school type (elementary/junior high/senior high). In a perfect world, there would be no extreme lop-sided majority ratios, no matter what the class, , where no one is in the minority.

Would be nice. Would be nice if segregated neighborhoods did not still exist. Would be nice if mostly affluent white homeland/bantustans did not exist. Would be nice if black/Latino/Native American, etc. homeland/bantustans did not exist, but, unfortunately they do exist.

As long as the majority white population lives in a world of white habitus, as long as non-whites, especially blacks (since this country still seeks to grind blacks into the dust more than any other racial/ethnic group) continue to live in separate apartheid enclaves; as long as the institutions of white supremacy continue, there will always be students who will be in the minority, not just due to numbers, but, due to the continued worship of devaluating the “Other”.

As long as there are white and black/Latino “churches”; white and black/Latino, etc. “neighborhoods”; white and black/Latino, etc. “social lives”; white and black/Latino, etc. “separateness”…………………as long as there is …segregation…both in body, mind and spirit….there will always be student ratios where there is someone of a group in the extreme minority.


As long as differences are exploited that serve and uphold white supremacy, figure on separation/segregation, and marginalizing the “Other”, to continue.

Until America bows to the belief that ALL have a right to an excellent education, figure on America further weakening herself from within.

Some of the hostility to true integration is the typical, “You stay the hell off my territory, my small, little piece of the world, my own space, and don’t you forget that”, mentality that saps this country of allowing all the many multi-ethnic/racial strengths to go un-used and un-incorporated into making this country into a greater and more inclusive place for all to live on a shared, equal, egalitarian level.

And that’s just the hostility that is…seen.

On the surface. In your face.

There is also the hostility that seethes and brews underneath, unseen from the outside.

The hostility that works behind the scenes that controls the pursestrings, that controls the money, that has the last say so over what one school district will get over another one.

The hostility that forments and keeps the fires of non-acceptance of difference going.

No Child Left Behind.

With the way minority children are short-changed and given dismissive, useless educations, they are the ones still being left behind.

In the end, it basically sums up to “No white child left behind'”.

And don’t get me started on bussing, which solves no problem, even if a new school is built or an existing school is renovated,  and students from all over are bussed into that school. This school will still be a turf/war-zone for differences. Even if the new school is built outside of the known neighborhood, bussing students out of the neighborhood still does not solve or seek to redress the continued existing problems that many urban and poor neighborhoods still suffer from:  inept, poorly trained teachers; horrid rotting, falling down/falling apart deteriorating schools; sub-standard, out-dated educational curriculums which are not keeping in step with the student’s daily lived experiences.

I am against bussing. I grew up when bussing was the rage, and black children/students suffered the most from it. Because that’s what bussing boils down to: “them” coming to “our” neighborhood. Whether bussing is one way, or both ways. I do not care for it.

I am a firm believer in the so-called school district allocating funds equitably across the board.

I am a firm believer that you take what you already have and learn another productive way to use it. Whatever you may have.

Existing schools. Teachers in need of upgrading their teaching skills. Parents given more information on how to help their children excel in their studies. Students given more college preparatory classes that strengthen their academic skills. School board members who get up off their rears and go out into the real world and sit down in a classroom and see what really transpires on a day-to-day basis for the teachers and the students.

I know. I know. Have to live in the real world….

….but, a girl can dream.

Yes, some schools have a stronger tax base than others, some families have more money than others, some parents have more education than others…

“To whom much is given, much is expected of.”

I know that there will always be selfish me-myself-and-I people in the world.

But, I would rather do what I can to stave off future destruction that comes from sub-standard education of today’s children, who will be tomorrow’s leaders.

Better to keep the wolf from the door that looms in the future from the mis-education of all students, by bringing up poor, urban schools to a level that meets the required preparatory level of the major colleges in America, than to face the dire consequences that will inevitably result from the insulting educations today’s youngsters are being straddled with.

I would rather see elementary/junior high/senior high schools graduate students who are prepared to enter the top 10 colleges in America, rather than to continue to see ill-prepared children who cannot take on the future world that is rapidly becoming globalized. I would rather see children in public schools taught to be critical thinkers, able to stand toe-to-toe with the rest of the world with an education that other nations would envy.

America is leaving herself behind with her hypocritical stupidity.

The rest of the world is starting to outpace America. Educating half of her population is neither beneficial nor wise in the long run.

We all lose out in the end.

We all may not be able to dismantle and tear down this system of savage inequalities all by ourselves, but, maybe we can all in some way, one child at a time, start to make a difference.

Buying books that are relevant to the various students who come to school with their unique perspective on life, and donating those books.  Offer to give volunteer time to an over-worked teacher. Volunteer to read to students at a neighborhood school. Volunteer to babysit for an overwhelmed, and over-worked young single mother. Give whatever time or effort you can. It may be a little effort to you, but, you never know who is watching. You never know who may be learning from the random acts of kindness, and senseless acts of beauty that you give selflessly to help a child, to help a teacher, to help a parent.

It would be great if this country thought more of all of its citizen’s welfare and security, but, until then, grassroots level activism and concern will always be what truly makes a difference in the end.

All it takes is one person to get the ball rolling.

Never underestimate the “power of one”.

Fifty years ago today, nine black students braved jeering, spitting, obscenity-yelling white mobs to get an education.
Black people of today in 2007 should never forget the trials, humiliation, and social isolation these young people endured to pave the way for all the young black people who came after them.

Young black people of today should never disgrace the hard-won efforts these nine young black people fought for, by saying that getting an education is “acting white.”

Getting an education is creating a living testament to all the many thousands of black people—parents, children of the black parents and the black community—put their lives on the line for.

To NOT get an education would be an insult to these nine brave young black people who faced hateful white supremacist vitriol from white mobs who sought to stop these young black people from being a part of the American Dream.

The right to an education was fought for with the blood, sweat and tears of these courageous nine black people.

For ANY young black person of the 21ST Century to not strive to be the best they can be intellectually would be nothing but spitting on the battles these nine young black people fought.

To the young black people of today, I say the following:

It is not “acting white” to get an education.

It is not “acting black” to get an education.

It is called acting intelligent, it is called showing profound respect and reverence, and it is never forgetting all the hells the many black people who came before you went through, black people who fought virulent, vicious white racist mobs that sought to beat down and prevent the many young black students who would not take anything for their journey.





“Unity in the Community”
September 23, 2007
1513 S Park St., Little Rock

Central High Integration Ecumenical Service
September 23, 2007
Robinson Center Music Hall

“It Happened in Little Rock – The Legacy Project”
September 23 – 30, 2007
Arkansas Repertory Theatre, 601 Main Street

Hearne Fine Art presents “Pictures Tell The Story: Full Circle Reflections of History”
September 23 – 30, 2007
Hearne Fine Art, 500 President Clinton Ave.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site new Visitor Center Grand Opening!
September 24, 2007
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Little Rock Nine Gala
September 24, 2007
Peabody Hotel Little Rock

“Daisy Bates: In Her Own Words” Book Release, Luncheon and Tour
September 25, 2007
The L.C. & Daisy Bates Museum, 1207 W. 28th Street

“Journey to Little Rock” screening of documentary about life of Minnijean Brown Trickey
September 25, 2007
M. L. Harris Auditorium, Philander Smith College



“Little Rock Central High: 50 Years Later”, Warner Home Video DVD, release date, October 30, 2007.

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