Pensacola, Florida
Monday October 14th 2019

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The ‘Little Rock Nine’

By Duwayne Escobedo

Nine ordinary teenage students endured hateful mobs, the Arkansas National Guard, racial slurs, spitting in their faces, urination in their lockers, scalding hot water splashed on them in bathrooms, beatings and other cruel acts to attend Central High School in Little Rock.

Why? They wanted the best education they could get. They wanted the best education for future generations.

It was 1957 in the South, and the black youth were committed to integrating public schools, no matter what the personal cost. Three years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education case presented by attorney Thurgood Marshall abolished the South’s racist system of “separate but equal” schools for whites and blacks.

“It was torture every single day—mentally, spiritually and physically,” said Dr. Eurydice Stanley, a Pensacola resident and close friend of one of the Little Rock Nine—Elizabeth Eckford. “This was not just sweat. It took blood to try and bring about change.”

Chief segregationist and Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, however, encircled the Central High campus with an armed National Guard and prevented the 14-, 15- and 16-year-old black students from entering the school on Sept. 4, 1957.

The governor predicted, “Blood will run through the streets if negroes attempt to attend Central High.”

It took President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a retired five-star Army general, to send 1,200 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to allow the students to enter the school and break the color barrier for the first time in history. They escorted and protected the students for a month with gun-mounted Jeeps and bayonets affixed to their rifles.

Eckford, known as “Auntie” to Stanley’s children, Grace and Christian, had made a special dress for her first day at Central High. The then-15-year-old was both nervous and excited to go to the $1.5 million school built in 1927 and recognized for its architecture. Over the front entrance, statues, called “Ambition,” “Personality,” “Opportunity,” and “Preparation,” welcomed students.

However, the self-described “introvert” quickly become terrified seeing a mob of 250 angry whites. They chanted, “Two, Four, Six, Eight, we don’t want to integrate!” Nothing welcomed her or her eight other fellow trailblazers that day.

“I wondered who’d be my new friends and if I would receive my desired classes from the school registrar,” Eckford said in “The Worst First Day,” a book she co-wrote with Stanley and her daughter, Grace. “Little did I know that I would soon be entering a cauldron of fire.”

The episode played out in front of a national and an international stage. It remains one of the most notable non-violent civil rights events in the journey to earn equality. Others include Rosa Park’s refusal to ride on the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955; a bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 that killed four black girls; and the 54-mile “Freedom March” from Selma, Ala., to the capital, Montgomery, in 1965 for the right to vote, which was met by violence by authorities and white vigilante groups.

Eckford, one of the nine chosen from more than 200 black applicants, was 100 percent committed to complete the school year, despite the constant barrage of abuse aimed at her.

“I simply could not let down the rest of the Nine and the other students counting on our victory,” Eckford said in “The Worst First Day.” “Although I spent every day in fear, I had a sense of purpose and knew our effort was honorable. I returned determined to see this effort to the end. If they wanted me out, they’d have to expel me.”

Two white friends, Kendall Reinhard and Ann Williams, also gave Eckford inspiration to carry on.

“They saved my life, literally,” Eckford said.

One of the nine, Ernest Green, proudly participated in his graduation ceremony that civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and 125 soldiers and police attended.

The Little Rock Nine also included: Minnijean Brown, 16, a junior; Thelma Mothershed, 16, a junior; Melba Pattillo, 15, a junior; Gloria Ray, 15, a junior; Terrence Roberts, 15, a junior; Jefferson Thomas, 15, a sophomore; and Carlotta Wells, 14, a sophomore.

After the school year ended, Eckford reported that more than half of Little Rock Nine families moved because of retaliation. Her mom lost her job at the Arkansas School for the Negro, Deaf and Blind. Central High School closed for a year before being reopened.

For 40 years after being part of the Little Rock Nine, Eckford said she was “traumatized.” But she reunited with Reinhard and Williams in 1996 and ever since then has spoken out about her “horrific” experience across the country.

Stanley said Eckford’s message inspired her and others to strive to make an impact with their lives.

“She (Eckford) couldn’t see the value and beauty of her survival. She didn’t think anyone would be interested,” Stanley said. “She values everyone’s experience. She says this is what happened. I made it through, and you can, too.”

Eckford’s story even motivated Stanley’s own children—Grace, a 16-year-old sophomore at West Florida High School, and Christian, a 13-year-old eighth grader at Bellview Middle School—to enter the history fair this year with stories about critical civil rights moments that happened in Pensacola.

Stanley said it makes her “sad” that more people have no idea about the struggles Eckford and other black citizens went through for future generations.

“This history is not only African-American; this history is for everyone,” Stanley said. “It is American history.”

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To purchase “The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Little Rock Central High: (Civil Rights History)”, visit Amazon.com.