50 years after nine black students attempted to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, one of those students, Elizabeth Eckford, recalls being spat upon, and jeered at by angry whites.
Integration of Little Rock High School: 50 Years Later
BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor:
NBC News IN DEPTH tonight, this week marks 50 years since a group of students known as the "Little Rock Nine" became the very first black students to enroll at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. One of them was a young woman who tried to start her new school year just like millions of other American kids, but her walk to school would eventually change history. And the memory of it, as you might imagine, is very fresh. The story from NBC's Don Teague.
Ms. ELIZABETH ECKFORD: We read about you in the paper.
DON TEAGUE reporting: Chances are you don't recognize Elizabeth Eckford, but you've surely have seen her face in a haunting photograph taken 50 years ago today, the day a 15-year-old Eckford braved an enraged mob and tried to enter Little Rock's Central High School.
Ms. ECKFORD: Well, it was the first time I ever even realized that there were adults who would knowingly hurt a child. I remember that I saw a woman who had a kind face, but then she spat on me.
TEAGUE: Eckford didn't make it to class that day in 1957. She was turned away by armed National Guardsmen...
Unidentified Man #1: (From file footage) Exercise of good judgment.
TEAGUE: ...ordered by a defiant Arkansas governor to keep nine black students out. The crisis that followed became a defining moment in the civil rights movement.
Dr. JOSEPH LOWERY (Civil Rights Leader): It was Little Rock, and it's where the nation affirmed the rule of law over the rule of the mob.
Unidentified Man #2: (From file footage) No violence today.
TEAGUE: For most of the country, the crisis ended three weeks later when President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to escort the Little Rock Nine to school. But for the students themselves, the ordeal was far from over.
The Little Rock Nine endured a terrifying first year at Central High School: mental abuse in the classrooms and physical abuse from some white students in the hallways. Today, white and black students mix freely in those same hallways, aware of history and sacrifice.
Ms. TAFI MUKUNYADZI (Student): They had more courage than I could ever hope to acquire.
Mr. DILLON HUPP (Student): I wouldn't consider it so much following the footsteps as we are in the shadows of these nine American heroes.
TEAGUE: No one here is suggesting total victory over racism, certainly not Elizabeth Eckford.
Ms. ECKFORD: Racism is institutional. It's something that's taught at home.
TEAGUE: But 50 years after desegregation, progress can be measured in the hallways of Central High School. Don Teague, NBC News, Little Rock.
In a key event of the American civil rights movement, nine black students enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957, testing a landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The court had mandated that all public schools in the country be integrated “with all deliberate speed” in its decision related to the groundbreaking case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
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