A well known saying is that a picture can paint a thousand words.
What does this picture say?
The woman at the centre of this photograph is Elizabeth Eckford, a 15 year old African American student, being followed by a white mob angrily hurling racial abuse at her as she tries to go to school.
So how did this turn of events come about? Well in 1954 a landmark decision was made in Brown v Board of Education where racially segregated schools in the United States were declared unconstitutional. Schools were required to integrate their pupils, and in 1957 nine Black students were enrolled for the first time at the previously all white Little Rock Central High School. This was a great step for racial equality but unfortunately on the 4th September, the first day of school, the shit truly hit the fan.
Elizabeth and the other black students (Ernest Green, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals) were subjected to abhorrent racial abuse as they tried to enter the school. Things were particularly bad for Elizabeth who tried to enter the school alone; she didn’t have a phone so hadn’t been made aware in time that the other eight students were arriving together. The Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, was anti-integration and deployed the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Little Rock Nine from entering the school. The Little Rock Nine had been chosen by the local NAACP branch as to be the first to enroll in this school, based on their high educational performance but also because they were seen to have the strength to deal with the racist hostility they were likely to face. Yet they could not have been prepared to be denied entry by the National Guard, as Elizabeth recounted later…
“When I got to the corner where the school was, I was reassured seeing these soldiers circling the school grounds. And I saw students going to school. I saw the guards break ranks as students approached the sidewalks so that they could pass through to get to school. And I approached the guard at the corner as I had seen some other students do and they closed ranks. So, I thought; ‘Maybe I am not supposed to enter at this point.’ So, I walked further down the line of guards to where there was another sidewalk and I attempted to pass through there. But when I stepped up, they crossed rifles. And again I said to myself; ‘So maybe I’m supposed to go down to where the main entrance is.’ So, I walked toward the center of the street and when I got to about the middle and I approached the guard he directed me across the street into the crowd. It was only then that I realized that they were barring me, that I wouldn’t go to school.”
Elizabeth recounts how she then went to the bus stop so she could go home…
“As I stepped out into the street, the people who had been across the street started surging forward behind me. So, I headed in the opposite direction to where there was another bus stop. Safety to me meant getting to that bus stop. It seemed like I sat there for a long time before the bus came. In the meantime, people were screaming behind me what I would have described as a crowd before, to my ears sounded like a mob“.
The situation after the Little Rock Nine were denied entry to school was at fever pitch, and Governor Faubus was criticised for his use of the Arkansas National Guard. The Guard were removed on the 20th September and replaced by the local police who were to protect the Little Rock Nine, but they were forced to evacuate the students as a large white mob began rioting outside. President Eisenhower stepped in, and the 101st First Airborne Division were deployed to protect the students and keep order. 21 days after the Little Rock Nine had first attempted to enter the school, they were finally able to complete a full day. Yet problems didn’t end there and the Little Rock Nine reported many instances of verbal and physical abuse over the school year. Their bravery and tenacity during this time paved the way for racial integration in the American school system.
What do you think we can learn from the Little Rock Nine? I’d love to hear thoughts in the comments below.
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