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Elizabeth Eckford An angry mob shouts at Elizabeth Eckford on September 4, 1957. She was just trying to go to school. The girl directly behind Elizabeth is Hazel Bryan. (Bettman / Corbis)

When School Was Scary

For many teens, the first day of school means a new outfit. For Elizabeth Eckford, it meant threats, violence, and a photograph that made history.

It was September 4, 1957. A crowd of people followed 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, shouting at her.

“We don’t want you here!”

“Don’t let her in!”

The African-American teenager looked straight ahead and kept walking. A group of girls came up behind her. They were so close they could grab her.

One girl’s face twisted into pure hatred. “Go back to Africa!” she screamed.


That was supposed to be Elizabeth’s first day at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. But huge crowds showed up to make sure she wouldn’t get in.

For a long time, Central High had been for white students only. Many people wanted it to stay that way.

In the 1950s, segregation was common, especially in the South. Laws said that black people and white people had to use separate restaurants, bathrooms, and even schools.

Then, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that segregation in public schools was illegal. Schools would have to integrate.


Segregation didn’t end right away. The laws had changed, but people didn’t want to change their ways.

Little Rock finally started to integrate in 1957. Elizabeth and eight other black students were chosen to go to Central High School. People called them the “Little Rock Nine.”

In addition to an angry mob, Arkansas National Guard troops were at Central High on the first day of school. They blocked the black students from entering.

The Little Rock Nine had to leave. They stayed home for three weeks.


At last, the President sent U.S. Army soldiers to Little Rock. On September 25, these soldiers drove the nine black students to school and walked them inside.

The soldiers remained at the school all year. Each of the black students had a soldier as a bodyguard. The bodyguards walked the students to and from class to protect them, but they couldn’t be everywhere.

White students were mean to the Little Rock Nine every day. They threw ink, books, and rocks at them. Elizabeth got some of the worst abuse. People pushed her down the stairs. They put broken glass in her gym shower. They lit balls of paper on fire and threw them at her.

Elizabeth stayed calm on the outside, but the attacks scared her. “I knew it was going to be rough,” Elizabeth told a reporter, “but knowing it and experiencing it are different things.”


Why was Elizabeth such a target? She was the most famous of the Little Rock Nine. On the morning of September 4, a photographer had taken a picture of the girl screaming at Elizabeth. It appeared in newspapers all over the country.

Americans were shocked. They couldn’t believe that people could be so cruel to such a young girl.

The photo brought a lot of attention to the struggles that many African-Americans faced. Elizabeth received hundreds of letters of support.


As the years passed, more and more schools around the country began to integrate. But no one ever forgot about Little Rock. In 1999, the members of the Little Rock Nine got the Congressional Gold Medal. It is the highest honor civilians can receive.

Elizabeth and her classmates were just nine teenagers trying to go to school. But they will always be remembered for their bravery.

This article originally appeared in the February 13, 2012 edition of Action. For more from Action, click here.

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