Arkansas Literary Festival: Elizabeth Eckford

The sixteenth annual Arkansas Literary Festival will take place April 25-28, 2019.

Civil Rights Icon Encourages Young People with Her Story

Elizabeth Eckford is a living icon of civil rights history. As one of the Little Rock Nine, her face became world-famous in disturbing photos of the 1957 desegregation riots in Little Rock, Arkansas.

When nine African American students exercised their legal right to enroll at all-white Little Rock Central High School, Governor Faubus ordered the National Guard to block their entry. Turned away, Eckford was surrounded by an angry mob of white people yelling insults and hinting at a lynching. She was only fifteen years old, and her stoic face could not hide the pain and horror of her experience.

The Little Rock Nine did succeed in integrating Little Rock Central High, which today has become a diverse campus where students of all races and social classes coexist. But the Little Rock Nine paid a heavy price for that progress by enduring bullying and hatred during their years there.

Elizabeth Eckford knows all too well the toll that bullying can take on a human spirit. Now she has written her own account of desegregation and its aftermath, The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Central High (co-authored with Dr. Eurydice Stanley and Grace Stanley).

Bystanders make a difference in bullying situations

The Worst First Day recounts Eckford’s experiences to emphasize the difference that bystanders can make by supporting the victims of bullying.

Eckford’s purpose in writing the book was to help young people. “I want my legacy to be that I encouraged young people not to just be bystanders when they see bullying, but to know that they can support someone who is being harassed, and how important that is,” she said.

Eckford describes in the book the constant name-calling, physical abuse, and cruelty that made the lives of the Little Rock Nine so difficult during the time they attended Central High. Just as painful as the outright bullying was the silent shunning they received from most students. “We would sit in the last row in classes, and sometimes people would move away because they didn’t want to sit beside us or near us,” Eckford said.

Compassion and inclusion from two white students made a crucial difference for young Elizabeth Eckford. “I was very shy, but I would look forward to speech class at the end of the day because two students reached out to me. They were often the only friendly voices I heard all day, one boy, Kendall, and a girl, Ann. I think they literally saved my life.”

By contrast, those white students who ignored what was happening increased the suffering of the African American students.

“When bullying happened, a lot of people would turn their heads and pretend they didn’t hear and just go about their business,” Eckford said. “It made me feel that they thought I was getting what I deserved. And it also made the bullies think that their bullying was acceptable.”

Her testimony makes a powerful point. “Bystanders do have an effect, good or bad, because of what they choose to do,” Eckford said. “And teachers change things too – in that one speech class, no one ever said anything hateful. And someone told me later that the teacher of that class had a talk with the students in the 17 days between when we first tried to go to class and when we came back—a talk about us and how we should be treated. So what that teacher said made a difference.”

Decades of helping students through education about desegregation

Eckford has been helping to educate students through her story for almost twenty years. “I’ve been talking to students for years now, since 1999. Some audiences are people who are interested in history, and some are just curious, but I hope they all are able to benefit from the message about bullying,” she said.

Eckford’s autobiographical book offers an inside view on one of the most famous civil rights events in history. Just as importantly, her story shows that change happens when enough individuals make a personal choice to act with both courage and kindness.

To hear Elizabeth Eckford in person, along with her co-authors Dr. Eurydice Stanley and teenager Grace Stanley, join us for the authors’ panel discussion at the Arkansas Literary Festival.

 

Elizabeth Eckford wrote her award-winning autobiography, The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Central High, to reach out with a message of encouragement and resilience for the next generation. The book was written 60 years after Eckford desegregated Central High as a courageous member of the Little Rock Nine. The Worst First Day encourages readers to follow Elizabeth’s lead and #WalkPastHate.”  Eckford has received numerous awards for her contributions to the civil rights movement, including an honorary doctorate from Knox College, the Champion of Justice Award from the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Congressional Gold Medal, our nation’s highest award. Elizabeth Eckford still resides in her beloved city of Little Rock.

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