Elizabeth Eckford, age 15, pursued by a mob at Little Rock Central High School on the first day of the school year, September 4, 1957.
October 4, 1941
Little Rock, Arkansas, United States
|Alma mater||Knox College in Illinois
Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio
|African-American Civil Rights Movement, Peace movement|
|Parents||Oscar and Birdie Eckford|
|Awards||Father Joseph Biltz Award|
Elizabeth Eckford (born October 4, 1941) is one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American students who, in 1957, were the first black students ever to attend classes at Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The integration came as a result of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Elizabeth's public ordeal was captured by press photographers on the morning of September 4, 1957, after she was prevented from entering the school by the Arkansas National Guard. A dramatic snapshot by Johnny Jenkins (UPI) showed the young girl being followed and threatened by an angry white mob; this and other photos of the day's startling events were circulated around the US and the world by the print press. 
On September 4, 1957, Eckford and eight other African American students (known as the Little Rock Nine) made an unsuccessful attempt to enter Little Rock Central High School, which had been segregated. With the complicity of the National Guard, an angry mob of about 400 surrounded the school.
As fifteen-year-old Eckford tried to enter the school, soldiers of the National Guard, under orders from Arkansas Governor Faubus, would step in her way to prevent her from entering. Eventually, she gave up and tried to flee to a bus stop through the mob of segregationists who surrounded her and threatened to lynch her. 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 named Grace Lorch who escorted her onto a city bus.
The plan was to have the nine children arrive together, but when the meeting place was changed the night before, the Eckford family's lack of a telephone left Elizabeth uninformed of the change. Instructions were given by Daisy Bates, a strong activist for desegregation, for the nine students to wait for her so that they could all walk together to the rear entrance of the school. This last minute change caused Elizabeth to be the first to take a different route to school, walking up to the front entrance completely alone. Even though Elizabeth Eckford would one day be known as a member of the Little Rock Nine, at this point in the school day, she was all alone, making her the first African-American student to integrate a white southern high school.
Weeks later the National Guard were removed, and the protection of the students left to the local police. On September 23, 1957, a mob of about 1000 people surrounded the school as the students attempted to enter. But the students were able to enter unobstructed after the mob attacked a group of Black reporters, including L. Alex Wilson of the Memphis Tri-State Defender. The following day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after seeing the photos taken by local photojournalist Will Counts, sent troops to accompany the students to school for protection. The troops were stationed at the school for the entire school year, although they were unable to prevent daily incidents of violence, such as when Eckford was thrown down a flight of stairs. One photo taken by Counts was a finalist for a 1957 Pulitzer Prize. Another photo taken of the event by Counts was chosen as the "News Picture of the Year" for 1957 by the National Press Photographers Association.
All of the city’s high schools were closed the following year, so Eckford did not graduate from Central High School. However, she had taken correspondence and night courses garnering enough credits for her high school diploma. In 1958, Eckford and the rest of the Little Rock Nine were awarded the Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as was Ms. Bates.
Eckford was accepted by Knox College in Illinois, but she left, returning to be near her family in Little Rock. She would later attend Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, where she earned a BA in history.
Eckford served in the United States Army for five years, first as a pay clerk, and then as an information specialist. She also wrote for the Fort McClellan (Alabama) and the Fort Benjamin Harrison (Indiana) newspapers. After that, she has worked as a waitress, history teacher, welfare worker, unemployment and employment interviewer, and a military reporter. She is a probation officer in Little Rock.
In 1997, she shared the Father Joseph Biltz Award—presented by the National Conference for Community and Justice—with Hazel Bryan Massery, a then-segregationist student at Central High School who appeared in several of the 1957 photographs screaming at the young Elizabeth. During the reconciliation rally of 1997, the two women made speeches together. But later their friendship broke up as she allegedly still harbored racist feelings for non-Whites. In 1999, President Bill Clinton presented the nation’s highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal, to the members of the Little Rock Nine.
On the morning of January 1, 2003, one of Eckford’s two sons, Erin Eckford, age 26, was shot and killed by police in Little Rock. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that the police officers had unsuccessfully tried to disarm him with a beanbag round after he had fired several shots from his rifle. When Mr. Eckford pointed his rifle towards them, the police officers shot him. His mother feared that his death was "suicide by police". Erin, she said, had suffered from mental illness but had been off his prescribed medication for several years. The newspaper later reported that prosecutors investigating the fatal shooting had decided that the police officers concerned were justified in shooting Mr. Eckford.
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