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Enduring Legacy

Looking back at the Little Rock Nine

An emotional Elizabeth Eckford (left) embraces President Clinton as she and other members of the Little Rock Nine accepted the Congressional Gold Medal, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 1999. ©J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images
An emotional Elizabeth Eckford (left) embraces President Clinton as she and other members of the Little Rock Nine accepted the Congressional Gold Medal, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 1999. ©J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images

The following essay was written by Kathryn Llewellyn at the request of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It will become a permanent part of the center’s collection during ceremonies on Constitution Day, September 17, 2007.

The assignment for the Scholastic Art and Writing Award winner was to write about someone who influenced constitutional history. Kathryn chose Eckford for her efforts to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Eckford and eight other teens, known as the Little Rock Nine, confronted angry mobs and the National Guard as they tried to enter the school that fall.

Kathryn told Scholastic News that she chose Elizabeth Eckford as her subject because, “she was a high school student just like me.”

“Just going to school was so difficult,” Kathryn said. “She faced it with grace and courage.”

Her essay follows:

On the morning of September 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford donned a flared skirt, white blouse, a pair of sunglasses and buck loafers. Boarding the city bus on the first day of school with her notebook in the crook of her arm, Eckford was merely another African-American teenager. Yet the short walk to Little Rock Central High School thrust her into the national spotlight, making her an icon of the courage, stoicism and grace that characterized the American Civil Rights Movement.

Eckford was one of nine African-American students, known as the Little Rock Nine, who attempted to

Kathryn Lewellyn, 2007 Scholastic Art and Writing Award Winner, who wrote the essay about Elizabeth Eckford. Photo: Courtesy Kathryn Lewellyn
Kathryn Lewellyn, 2007 Scholastic Art and Writing Award Winner, who wrote the essay about Elizabeth Eckford. Photo: Courtesy Kathryn Lewellyn

attend Arkansas’s Little Rock Central High School for the first day of classes on September 4, 1957. Following a 1954 Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in American schools, various southern institutions, including Arkansas State University, desegregated. However, Little Rock’s public schools resisted until the school board finally accepted the decision and devised a laissez-faire plan for integration. Determined to acquire the skills and experience necessary to attend college, the Little Rock Nine volunteered to attend Central High School, a white high school offering a wider variety of courses than traditionally black schools. However, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus summoned the state National Guard to prevent the African-American students from entering Central High School.

As Eckford approached the campus that morning, she saw the contingent of National Guardsmen and the growing mob of white onlookers. Beneath the folds of her skirt, Eckford’s knees trembled, and she hoped that the sunglasses hid the fear in her eyes. “Two, four six, eight,” the mob shouted, “We ain’t gonna integrate!” Nearing the center of campus, Eckford hoped that the National Guardsmen would escort her to safety. Instead, they raised their guns. Eckford could not walk any farther.

The Little Rock Nine did not return to school until September 23, 1957, after President Dwight Eisenhower ordered Governor Faubus to withdraw the National Guardsmen and admit the African-American students to school. But even the presidential injunction could not quell the public maelstrom, and once again, a mob gathered outside the school to taunt Eckford and her peers as they slipped into the building through a side entrance. Finally, President Eisenhower seized federal control of the Arkansas National Guard and mobilized the 101st Airborne Division to protect the Little Rock Nine as they entered the school to begin the year once again.

However, Eckford and her peers faced daily torment, as their white classmates shunned them, and their teachers looked on. Yet the African-American students returned unfailingly until the conclusion of the school year that spring.

Determined to defy the Supreme Court’s ruling and challenge the effort to integrate, Governor Faubus closed all local schools the following fall. Eckford did not graduate from Central High School but remained devoted to continuing her education through correspondence classes and night school. Ultimately, she earned a bachelor’s degree in history, and in 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Eckford and other members of the Little Rock Nine with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.

However, her educational achievements and national honors are only small attributes of her enduring legacy. For decades to come, the tall young woman wearing sunglasses and a flared skirt will personify the ongoing pursuit of equality and the quiet tenacity of ordinary citizens. Elizabeth Eckford’s story is evidence that each and every American can be a champion of civil rights, exemplifying unsurpassed bravery in the face of adversity.

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