Turn Away Thy Son
Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation
Friday, March 16, 2007
MISCEGENATION AND THE BEAST
Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford wanted to be a lawyer. Thurgood Marshall was her hero, and although she had never dared to hope she might one day meet the man who had argued and won Brown v. Board of Education before the United States Supreme Court, the African-American youngster dreamed of doing the same kinds of daring things for her people. When, however, her principal at all-black Horace Mann High School asked in the spring of 1957 who wanted to help pioneer desegregation at Little Rock Central High School in the fall, shy, serious Elizabeth did not raise her hand. Explaining her hesitation several years later, she recalled that she had thought she could not reach such an important decision without a lot of careful deliberation.
As a consequence, Elizabeth was not included among the sixteen students Superintendent Virgil Blossom had selected to initiate desegregation in September. She knew she wanted to go to college, however, and she knew that Central High School offered courses she would not be able to take if she stayed at Horace Mann. After thinking about it all summer, Elizabeth finally told her mother in August she wanted to go to Central High. Birdie Eckford hoped her quiet, studious daughter would change her mind.
In her own childhood Birdie Eckford had witnessed in her hometown the death of a black man at the hands of a white mob that was similar to a gruesome 1927 lynching on the streets of Little Rock. She had felt the same wave of panic wash over the black community, much as it had in Little Rock when a black man captured after the rape and murder of a young white girl had been hanged, riddled with over two hundred bullets, dragged by the head for blocks behind an automobile, and then thrown on the trolley tracks at the intersection of Ninth and Broadway in the heart of the black business district and set ablaze.
Along with other members of Little Rock's African American community, Birdie Eckford had absorbed from such experiences the lessons of growing up black in the South, and she feared the white beast that could rise up at any moment and strike her people. Her husband, Oscar, had learned in his Little Rock childhood that any time a white woman came toward him on the street he should cross to the other side, just to remove all possibility of her sensing anything untoward in his glance or manner. For their own survival, southern blacks had to understand and explain to their children, especially their sons, the chemistry that could unharness the beast.
Elizabeth Eckford had learned from her parents, and from the grandfather who doted on her, the demands and the function of hard work. Her father later told a visiting reporter that he was the only man in Little Rock who worked nine days a week: seven nights at the Little Rock railroad station, and two days cleaning the home of a white Arkansas National Guard colonel. Birdie taught laundry skills at the Arkansas School for the Blind and Deaf Negro, where she had a son enrolled, and she also took correspondence courses in psychology and English literature. Grandfather Oscar owned a grocery store and worked long hours; he catered to an integrated clientele, and Elizabeth had noted he was as forthright and dignified with his white patrons as with his black ones. Of all his grandchildren Oscar Eckford Sr. had a special bond with tiny Elizabeth, apparently seeing in her some of the spunk he valued in himself. As Elizabeth's father explained, "Maybe Papa felt that he and I didn't do nothing, so maybe Elizabeth would."
Elizabeth persevered in badgering her reluctant mother, and finally Birdie agreed to take her second daughter for an interview with Superintendent Virgil Blossom. Elizabeth had all A's and B's and her school record was a model of citizenship. After keeping Elizabeth and her mother waiting for a very long time, Dr. Blossom tried to discourage the youngster, as he had all the other applicants, by explaining she would not be allowed to participate in any extracurricular activities. The determined fifteen-year-old quietly held her own against the imposing former football coach, however, and Blossom added Elizabeth Eckford to the list of students already slated to enter Central High School the next week. As a consequence of her late decision, Elizabeth missed the preparation some of the other students had been receiving at the home of Daisy Bates, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Elizabeth had paid attention throughout the summer as an increasingly vocal group of white people, the Capital Citizens' Council, had mounted a propaganda campaign against the planned desegregation of Central High School. She had been confident, however, that school authorities and the local police would maintain order at the high school, and she felt nervously excited rather than fearful as the opening of the fall term approached. In preparation for that day, in her small, crowded household, she laid out on the living room floor the fabric and pattern for a new dress, a beautiful white shirtwaist with a deep gingham hem, to wear on the first day of school. Her sewing occupied her thoughts in the last few days. Even as Governor Orval Faubus surrounded her new high school with armed National Guardsmen on the night of September 2, Elizabeth fretted over her new white buck loafers and bobby socks, making sure that everything was ready for this exciting new chapter in her life.
Birdie Eckford was terrified by the Arkansas governor's actions. She thought she heard him say on television that if the black children insisted on pressing their right to attend Central High School at that time, "blood will run in the streets" of Little Rock. The next day the black children stayed home while the Little Rock School Board went into federal court to ask for a temporary delay of its integration plan. Federal Judge Ronald Davies, visiting from North Dakota to clear up a backlog of cases, noted the governor had said his Guardsmen would function neither as integrationists nor segregationists but only to preserve the peace. He ordered the School Board to proceed immediately with its federally mandated plan. The children and their parents had met that same afternoon with Superintendent Blossom, and when they got home Birdie Eckford insisted the family pray together. After dinner Birdie instructed Elizabeth to read Psalms 27 and 4.
Filled with excitement and a growing apprehension, Elizabeth tossed and turned all night, finally rising early on the morning of September 4 to iron her new dress one last time. When her little brother turned on the television and the announcer blared that a crowd was already forming in front of Central High School, Birdie shouted from the kitchen "Turn that TV off!" Oscar Eckford paced back and forth through the house chewing on his pipe and carrying a cigar, both unlit, and Elizabeth would have laughed if she had not been so nervous. After reading Psalm 27 one last time, the plucky teen told her parents not to worry and boarded the city bus, alone, for the short ride to Central High School.
Elizabeth did not know that late the night before, Daisy Bates had arranged for the black children to assemble at her home in order to drive them as a group to meet with city policemen two blocks from the school. From that point, a group of black and white ministers planned to escort the children to the school grounds and to offer themselves as a moral shield of protection in the event a hostile crowd assembled outside the school. Working into the early morning hours to call all of the parents, an exhausted Bates realized at length the Eckfords did not have a telephone. She fell into bed making a mental note to find Elizabeth in the morning. The next morning, Bates forgot about Elizabeth in the crush of activity at her home. Meanwhile, Governor Faubus was changing his orders to the National Guard, instructing them not simply to "keep the peace" as he had the day before, but to bar the black children from the campus of Central High School.
When the bus deposited her at the corner of Twelfth and Park Streets Elizabeth could see the large crowd that had formed in front of the massive buff brick school. As she approached the corner of Fourteenth and Park, she felt comforted by the presence of the National Guardsmen ringing the school, and she headed for the sidewalk behind the line of soldiers so they would be between her and the noisy protesters. Elizabeth neared the soldiers and was relieved to see a white girl pass between them. One of the Guardsmen, however, motioned for her to cross to the other side of the street, suggesting she should approach the decidedly unfriendly throng of about two hundred whites.
Obedient as always, Elizabeth did as she was told, and the whites initially drew back to let her pass. When, however, she heard one man say "Here she comes, now get ready!" she felt the first real fear surge through her. She moved to the middle of the street, walking with the soldiers on her right and the large band of increasingly hostile whites on her left.
Elizabeth saw some white students pass through the line of soldiers about halfway down the two-block campus, and she headed for that spot. Whites were crowding close behind her saying such things as "Go back where you came from! Go home before you get hurt, nigger. Why don't you go back to the goddamn jungle!" As she told a local white minister several days later, she began to grow fearful, but the proud and dignified young girl also worried she would "bust out crying and I didn't want to in front of all that crowd."
When the frightened child finally arrived at the midpoint of the campus and tried to pass between two soldiers, they raised their guns and barred her entry. Her knees now shaking, Elizabeth turned to face the mob, hoping to find a friendly or compassionate soul. One grey-haired woman seemed to have a kindly manner, but when the black girl looked at her beseechingly, the woman spat in her face.
With dignity and composure, Elizabeth turned and walked briskly toward the Sixteenth Street bus stop. As she traveled that nightmarishly long block, an aroused mob trailed closely behind her hurling threats and epithets. "Lynch her!" was the one she remembered. At some point during the seemingly endless journey, a young photographer for the Arkansas Democrat snapped a haunting picture that soon traveled around the globe, later becoming an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. That picture of a stoic Elizabeth Eckford absorbing an outpouring of white rage suggested the depth of black courage, endurance, and hope.
Elizabeth made her way to the bus stop at Sixteenth and Park and considered sitting on the bench. With the mob at her heels, however, she decided to cross over to Ponder's Drug Store and use their telephone to call a taxi. As the terrified child approached the store, someone inside locked the door. Elizabeth went back to the bench and sat down, while people around her shouted "Lynch her!" and "Nigger bitch!" A black man she had never met materialized beside her - it was L. C. Bates. He pulled back his coat to show he had a gun in his belt and invited her to leave the scene with him. Elizabeth knew her strict mother would never approve her leaving with a strange man, and she declined.
Handsome Terrence Roberts sat down beside her, another one of the black students Virgil Blossom had selected who had also been turned away, and he suggested they walk home together. Elizabeth knew he lived closer to the school than she did, and she feared what any whites who chose to trail along behind them might do to her once Terrence went into his own home. She decided to wait for a bus.
As Elizabeth began to cry, New York Times education editor Benjamin Fine sat beside her on the bench and laid down his notepad, abandoning his role as a journalist. Putting an arm around her he lifted her chin and said, "Don't let them see you cry." It helped the frightened child regain her composure. Now the mob descended on the Jewish New Yorker, shifting easily from racism to anti-Semitism, and threatened the small, appalled newsman that if he did not stop interfering they would castrate him. Elizabeth sat frozen, raging in her mind against Virgil Blossom, Daisy Bates, and the other white newsmen and photographers who were doing nothing to help her. When word went through the crowd that more black children were trying to enter the school, most of the newsmen abandoned Elizabeth to her tormentors and dashed the length of the campus to cover the new action.
While the minutes ticked away, Elizabeth's pulse began to return to normal as the milling crowd lost interest in her and shifted its attention to events at the other end of the long block. Suddenly a white woman appeared and began to berate the crowd for its mistreatment of Elizabeth. "She's scared," Grace Lorch challenged the mob. "She's just a little girl.... Six months from now you'll be ashamed at what you're doing." Cries of "Nigger-lover!" flew up on all sides. Mrs. Lorch, the wife of a mathematics professor at the local black college, Philander Smith College, was also a member of the Communist Party. Elizabeth did not know this, of course, but she thought in terror that the woman was trying to incite a riot. Finally a city bus arrived and Elizabeth rose to board it, as did Mrs. Lorch.
A few young toughs stood in front of the bus and said to the older woman, "You nigger lover, you are not going to get on this bus." Mrs. Lorch raised her hands and said, "I am just aching to punch someone in the nose. This is what I have been wanting to do, just waiting for. You stand there and you will get your nose punched in." The bullies backed down and faded away. Glad as she was to escape the situation, Elizabeth believed Mrs. Lorch demonstrated a lack of sincere concern for her when the older woman got off the bus a few blocks later without seeing the frightened teenager safely to her destination.
Elizabeth rode the bus to her mother's school. When she arrived at the laundry area where Birdie worked she found her mother standing by the window with head bowed, terrified after hearing accounts on the radio of her daughter's ordeal. Elizabeth collapsed into her mother's arms and wept. As Mrs. Eckford recalled, "I went with her to the rest room, and she braced up and came on home alone." The two women then did what their survival under segregated oppression had taught them to do: they squared their shoulders, and they raised their chins.
National Council of Churches representative Will Campbell, who was in town as an observer, had volunteered to join Ministerial Alliance President Dunbar Ogden in escorting the black children to Central High when Ogden was unable to secure such a commitment from any other white minister in Little Rock. Forty years later Campbell looked at the pictures of that day and said, "'Where,' the photographs cry out, 'are the white Christians in this scene?'" In the same volume of images Hazel Bryan, the young white girl who shouted "Nigger!" at Elizabeth Eckford in Will Counts's haunting picture, described herself as having been "very religious" at the point in her life when she hurled such slurs. Hazel Bryan's story complicates the standard narrative seemingly depicted in Counts's iconic photograph.
Hazel had grown up in the country close to Pine Bluff, one of the centers of black population and white racism in Arkansas. She had had affectionate relationships with several older black women in her poor, rural community. As a child she was never encouraged explicitly to hate blacks, but as she recalled years later, "... you just somehow knew from the expression or the tone of 'nigger.'" According to Hazel, both of her parents were "very racially prejudiced," as were literally all of the whites of their acquaintance. A member of the Church of Christ, which was among the most rigid practitioners of Christian fundamentalism, she never heard directly from the pulpit that the races should be kept separate, but in thinking back to those days, she remembered "... you always got the idea that you weren't supposed to marry, intermarry...."