Elizabeth Eckford is a living member of the Little Rock Nine, the first group of African-American students to attend Little Rock Central High School in 1957 in Arkansas. The Arkansas National Guard barred her entrance to the school and the press captured her ordeal in photographs seen worldwide. Many journalists took photographs and even recorded along a white student, Hazel Massery, along with other white students yelling racial slurs at Elizabeth and the other black students trying to enter. The iconic image of her taken by Will Counts influenced President Dwight D. Eisenhower to deploy U.S. federal troops to Little Rock.
Early Years and Family
Elizabeth Eckford was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, on October 4, 1941, as one of six children produced by parents Oscar and Birdie Eckford. Oscar worked at night for the Little Rock station on the Missouri Pacific Railroad doing maintenance on dining cars. Birdie was a teacher in the segregated school for deaf and blind children, where she taught them how to wash and iron.
The Morning of September 4, 1957On September 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford woke for her first day of high school.
Elizabeth Eckford’s mother understood the risks her daughter was taking to be a part of the first integrated groups of students in Arkansas and armed her with courage and manners.
Eckford requested and then was selected to enroll in the formally segregated Little Rock Central High School with eight other black students. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on Brown vs. the Board of Education only three years before, which outlawed the segregation of schools. Little Rock Central chose the fall of 1957 to become the first major city in the south to desegregate.
Eckford wanted to enroll in the school to follow her dream of becoming a lawyer. She felt inspired by Clarence Darrow, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, and Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who argued for Oliver L. Brown, the plaintiff in Brown vs. the Board of Education.
The Little Rock NineBefore leaving for school, Elizabeth Eckford heard the local news describing a large crowd gathering around Little Rock Central High School. Her mother turned off the television and remained her to ignore the taunts and stay nice to put them to shame. She had missed a call from the school the day before about all the African-American students meeting in the back of the school to enter together.
Even though Will Counts took the photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, the hate radiating from a white student, Hazel Bryan’s face, really made the image iconic since it revealed the true state of racism in the South.
As Eckford walked to school, large groups of white people stood on Park Street and she noticed white students filing past the soldiers standing on the road without issue. When Eckford approached the three guards, two holding rifles, they directed her to the far side of the Park on her left. She was blocked by another soldier and when she tried to go around others joined to block her path.
Elizabeth Eckford continued south on Park Street and more white people began following her, students and local residents alike. They yelled things like, Go home, nigger!” “Lynch her! Lynch her!” and “No nigger bitch is going to get in our school!” When she looked for help, an older white woman spat on her. Three white girls from the school, including Hazel Bryan Massery, fell in behind Elizabeth Eckford and chanted, “Two, four, six, eight! We don’t want to integrate.”
One of the reporters, Benjamin Fine, noticed the malice emanating toward Elizabeth from Hazel Massery specifically and later quotes that the girl was “screaming, just hysterical, just like one of these Elvis Presley hysterical deals, where these kids are fainting with hysteria.” Will Counts, the photographer who took the most iconic photograph of Elizabeth Eckford recalled Hazel Bryan Massery, only 15-years-old at the time, shouting, “Go home, nigger! Go back to Africa!” as he captured his photo. The anger in Hazel Bryan’s eyes linger in the picture and her face looks more menacing because of the light and the fact Counts caught her in the middle of saying a vowel, the “A” in Africa.
The next day, newspapers across the U.S. featured the photograph of Elizabeth and Hazel and even reached newspapers outside the continent. Support poured in from across the country, and even from the Kremlin and the Vatican. Elizabeth received the most direct support of the Little Rock Nine since she featured in the widely circulated photograph. Hazel Bryan Massery’s parent’s pulled her out of the high school.
On September 23, 1957, after waiting for two weeks, Eckford tried again with her fellow black students, but a mob formed outside and threatened to kill the students. President Eisenhower intervened the next day by taking control of the Arkansas National Guard from the governor and ordered them to protect the Little Rock Nine as the entered the school. Soldiers remained in the school for the entire year, but could not prevent all the violence against the black students, including one occasion when Eckford was thrown down a flight of stairs.
Elizabeth Eckford could not graduate from Central High School since all the city’s high schools closed in 1958. She did graduate from high school by taking night courses and enrolled at Illinois’ Knox College, but returned to be close to her parents. She graduated from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, with a Bachelors in History.
Eckford spent five years serving in the U.S. Army. First, as a pay clerk, then as an information specialist. She wrote for newspapers out of Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, and Fort McClellan, Alabama. Eckford received the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) along with her eight fellow students in 1958. Elizabeth Eckford shared the Father Joseph Blitz Award with Hazel Bryan Massery, and the pair spoke together a 1997 reconciliation rally. President Bill Clinton awarded her the Congressional Gold Medal along with the other Little Rock Nine students. She currently works as a probation officer in Little Rock and bore two sons.
Margolick, D. (2011, October 9). Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan: The story behind the photograph that shamed America. The Telegraph.
National Park Service. (2016, March 30). Elizabeth Ann Eckford (1941–). The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.