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Civil Rights Icons Describe Segregation

Two former students discuss desegregation in 1950s Little Rock

Little Rock, AR. 1957. A shy black girl who's about to turn sixteen clasps her books and tries to go to her new school, Central High. Surrounding her are her white classmates, tormenting her as she goes in by herself.

As the year progresses, her classmates ignore her. Fifty-five of them set regular schedules to torment her and the other eight black students. The memory is so horrible, that it takes the girl and the other black classmates 20 years before they can speak about what had happened to them.

"Mostly, people turned their backs," said Elizabeth Eckford, 61, the black girl whose image of her entering school was broadcast to newspapers worldwide. She was one of "The Little Rock Nine." "It felt like they didn't consider me a human being."

Eckford, and a high school friend, Ken Reinhardt, spoke to an audience of students at Madison High School Thursday, explaining the events behind the infamous photograph, as well as how their lives were changed by the desegregation efforts in 1957.

Their appearance was part of Civil Rights Awareness Week, held Dec. 9th to 13th and organized by the Combating Intolerance class at Madison. In addition to Eckford and Reinhardt, other speakers engaged students through speeches and brown bag lunches, including former Madison principal George Felton, football players from the T.C. Williams High School Titans 1971 team, and Rev. Charles Sherrod, founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

"IT WAS BEAUTIFUL, it was eye-opening. I had heard about the horrible things that were going on," said junior Sarah Thomas, remarking on the raw emotion that was still felt by the speakers. "I wish everyone in the whole school could be here."

At Thursday's talk, Eckford provided students with some context on why she decided to go to Central High School in Little Rock. She wanted to go to college, and knew that Central would provide her with a good education. She came from a working-class family, and lived in one of the oldest sections of town. She also already knew about some of her Central classmates, because they lived near her.

In the spring before the start of the 1957-58 school year, she was one of the students who signed up to go to Central the following year.

"Having lived in the community where I lived, I knew Central High School kids, they were my neighbors," Eckford said.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court decided to end public school segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education case three years ago, then Arkansas governor Orval Faubus defied the order, and called the Arkansas National Guard to prevent Eckford and eight other black students from entering the school. This occurred on Sept. 4, 1957. Faubus then met with President Dwight Eisenhower, and agreed to use the National Guard to protect the students. However, when Eckford and the others tried to go to Central on Sept. 14th, Orval dismissed the National Guard, leaving the students to themselves.

Pres. Eisenhower then dispatched the 101st Airborne Division paratroopers several hours later, and placed the National Guard under federal command. For the rest of the school year, the black students were under federal protection. But unless the taunting and attacks were severe, those National Guard following the nine did nothing to prevent attacks such as tripping or body slamming into lockers, Eckford said.

"I had never been in a school situation where students were permitted to attack other students," Eckford said. "These people were being supported by the school officials" who took no reprimanding action.

ALTHOUGH ECKFORD SAID she was lonely during the school year, there were two white classmates who tried to befriend her. One was Ken Reinhardt, a senior.

"He's an example of what Martin Luther King said: that the true measure of a man is not how he behaves in time of comfort, but in times of controversy," Eckford said of Reinhardt.

As school progressed, Reinhardt made it a point to speak to every one of the black students. Unlike other families, his family was always supportive, despite receiving threatening phone calls from neighbors.

"Race had never been an issue at my home," Reinhardt said, citing religion as one reason why that was so. Reinhardt also recalled reading a library book that said that the brains of blacks were smaller, and therefore blacks were less intelligent.

"This drivel was in the library of one of the top 38 high schools in America," Reinhardt said.

After the school year ended, Faubus closed all the high schools, forcing Eckford and the other black students to finish school elsewhere. Eckford went to school out-of-state, but didn't finish. She served in the Army for five years, got her GED, and became a civics teacher.

When asked how she survived the school year, Eckford didn't know. She said, however, that it something she knew she needed to do.

"Sometimes you reach down inside yourself, and...you find steel," Eckford said. "Only we knew how hellish it was, and we couldn't let each other down...When you have a purpose that's larger than yourself, you can do a lot more."

WITH THE HELP OF A CLASS PROJECT for National History Day in the 1990s, Reinhardt and Eckford reunited. It was then that Reinhardt learned of how his conversations impacted Eckford.

"Until that day in Liz's home, I had no idea our conversations meant that much to her," Reinhardt said.

Recently Reinhardt has been traveling the country to talk about his experiences in 1957-58. The event at Madison was the first time Eckford and Reinhardt did a presentation together. Eckford herself had started to talk about "The Little Rock Nine," although it took her years to discuss it, she said. She has talked to students about racial reconciliation with Hazel Massery, the white female student in the photograph who had harassed Eckford . Massery called Eckford six years after the incident to apologize.

"A lot of it is taught at the home. It passes from one generation to another," Eckford said, when asked where prejudice comes from. "Bigotry exists because it's systemic and it's supported by the larger population."

The 28 students responsible for bringing Eckford and Reinhardt to Madison said they were impressed by their classmates' interest.

"It was just really refreshing to see and have people come and share their experiences with students," said senior Tina Diranian., one of the students in the Combating Intolerance class.

For junior Sarah Hoptman, the stories about segregation that she had heard from her Florida family had hit home.

"I had heard these stories, but they were just stories my grandparents told me," Hoptman said.

Social studies teacher Gideon Sanders said the Civil Rights Week is just one opportunity for students to bring course material to life. They had held an Islamic Awareness Week earlier in the fall.

"We talk about it in the class, but I really wanted to bring it home to them," Sanders said. The brown bad lunches during the week were also popular, with students arguing after school in the parking lot over what Rev. Charles Sherrod had said.