Black Heroes: Elizabeth Eckford
A couple of years back I went to a Black History Month event where people would talk about their ‘black heroes’. I wasn’t prepared and quickly scanned my memory for someone whom I held to be a hero, but whilst trying to avoid cliché.
The person I went straight to was Elizabeth Eckford, one of the ‘Little Rock Nine’. The famous picture of a graceful and almost serene Eckford, walking in front of people who were threatening to lynch her, never fails to bring me close to tears. It is courage and resolve embodied in film.
In case anyone reading didn’t study US Civil Rights (it seems to be a pretty standard UK GCSE history topic), let me give the background.
In 1954 the US Supreme Court rules that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional, and therefore illegal. Despite the ruling, many of the American Deep South states kept practising segregation in schools.
In September 1957, a group of nine black students, aged around 15 to 17 exercised the right, recently confirmed by the School Board, to integrated education by attending the Little Rock Central High School. The Democratic Governor of Arkansas, Orville Faubus used the National Guard to surround the school with orders not to let any black students past.
The black students had organised to meet together with a lawyer and advance to the school as a group with military protection. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Eckford’s family didn’t have a phone and she was caught between a white mob of several hundred people and a line of soldiers under orders not to let her go into the buildings. The events are depicted in the Red Cross and HBO films below.
President Eisenhower responded to the events by using the Army to force the school open to the Little Rock Nine. Whilst the Little Rock crisis dragged on, and there were many heroes in the Civil Rights movement, the individual courage in the face of such hate can only inspire.