My Civil Rights Hero

We just celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was a great civil rights leader, achieving unbelievable victories using nonviolent means.  However, my civil rights hero is someone else.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic decision on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.  It declared all laws establishing segregated schools to be unconstitutional, and it called for desegregation of all schools in the U.S. In 1957, there were nine black teenagers enrolled at the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.  They became known as the “Little Rock Nine.”

Plans were made for these nine students to enter the school on September 4th, 1957.  The plan was to have the nine teenagers arrive together, but when the meeting place was changed the night before, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford didn’t get the message because her family didn’t have a telephone.  Her family was also uniformed that the school board wanted her parents to accompany her.  As a result, the other eight kids arrived together at the rear entrance of the school.  However, Elizabeth rode a public bus by herself to the segregated school and walked up to the front entrance completely alone.

As she walked toward the school, she was surrounded by a crowd of white armed guards and a mob of 400 angry white people–white students, white parents, and other white men and women who opposed integration.  She did not see any black faces.  The white teenagers chanted “Two, four, six, eight, we ain’t gonna integrate.”  Elizabeth attempted to go into the school through the mob, but was denied entrance by Governor Faubus and the Arkansas National Guard.

Eckford described her experience:  “I stood looking at the school—it looked so big!  Just then the guards let some white students through. The crowd was quiet. I guess they were waiting to see what was going to happen.  When I was able to steady my knees, I walked up to the guard who had let the white students in.  He didn’t move.  When I tried to squeeze past him, he raised his bayonet and then the other guards moved in and they raised their bayonets.  They glared at me with a mean look and I was very frightened and didn’t know what to do. I turned around and the crowd came toward me.  They moved closer and closer.  Somebody started yelling, ‘Drag her over this tree! Let’s take care of that nigger!'”

Eckford ran to a bus bench at the end of the block. Once Eckford got to the bus stop, she couldn’t stop crying.  A reporter, Benjamin Fine, having in mind his own 15-year-old daughter, sat down next to Eckford.  He tried to comfort her and told her, “Don’t let them see you cry.”  Soon, she was also protected by a white woman (or an angel) named Grace Lorch who escorted her onto a city bus.

On September 23rd, the Little Rock Nine tried to enter the school again but this time there was a mob of about 1,000 whites.  The next day, President Eisenhower took control of the Arkansas National Guard, and authorized the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to escort them into the school.  Soldiers were deployed at the school for the entirety of the school year, although they were unable to prevent incidents of violence against the group inside, such as Eckford being thrown down a flight of stairs.

So, Elizabeth had been outnumbered about 400-to-1.  Her opposition included an armed military, as well as activists that threatened to lynch her and who threw her down a flight of stairs.  Every day she endured racial slurs, threats, and physical violence.  We all know how mean teenagers can be when they decide to bully helpless victims, but few of us have ever endured bullying like Elizabeth did. Yet she would not be denied her right to an education.   What courage!

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