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Civil rights pioneer uses pain of past to send message today

One of Little Rock Nine speaks out against silent witnesses

By Kevin Drew

Eckford: "My kids used to hate the press, because they felt reporters would come ... make mama cry."
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Civil Rights
Elizabeth Eckford
Supreme Court

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (CNN) -- Tucked away on the fourth floor of a building downtown, Elizabeth Eckford is busy tracking the daily progress of people on probation in her role as a public servant for the Pulaski County courts.

Diminutive and quiet -- especially so on this spring day because she's hoarse -- Eckford doesn't appear extraordinary or obvious as a pioneering soldier in the American civil rights movement.

But then what would such a person look like?

"We were ordinary people," Eckford says of herself and the eight other African-Americans selected to desegregate Little Rock's Central High School in the 1957-58 school year.

"The Little Rock Nine, we weren't the people chosen by the NAACP to go to Central. We weren't the ones that they anticipated. We were the ones left."

In the fall of 1957, three years after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision, the world's attention was focused on Little Rock as the city phased in its desegregation plan by admitting the first black students into Central High School.

"The [Little Rock school] superintendent announced two criteria [for choosing black students to attend Central]," Eckford recalls. "First, that he would make the final selection, that he would choose students who were good students, and those that were not troublemakers. Well, to a white Southerner at that time, anybody associated with the NAACP was a troublemaker. So we were what's left."

A tense, three-week standoff began September 4, 1957, when 15-year-old Eckford and the other eight black teenagers tried to enter Central. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus had dispatched the Arkansas National Guard to, as he put it, preserve the peace. But while the white students were allowed into school, the National Guardsmen turned away the nine black students.

A crowd that had begun gathering outside the high school shouted insults at them and called them names. Local media estimated the crowd that day at 100. At its peak three weeks later, it would surpass 1,000.

President Eisenhower federalized the state's National Guard, sent in Army troops for support, and on September 25 The Little Rock Nine were permanently allowed into Central High School.

It was a painful, traumatic and emotional time for Eckford. Talking about that first year at Central is difficult for her and she pauses to cry. (Eckford recalls 1957)

She says the events of 1957-58 shaped her opinion of white people, today describing a Southern white moderate as "Someone who says 'I will follow the law because I have to' " rather than follow it voluntarily.

And she's learned to be cautious with the media. "My kids used to hate the press, because they felt reporters would come, talk to mama, make mama cry, and then leave. And then life would resume, as before. It didn't do a thing for us, except bring mama some misery."

Eckford would prefer to discuss other topics than the events of 1957-58. But she uses interviews and public appearances, she says, to emphasize more than the memories of a dark period.

"Education is an investment in itself," she says. "It doesn't matter how your teacher feels about you. You're responsible for investing in yourself. And that investment in yourself will make you available for opportunities in the future."

"And also, I tell them about two students (during her first year at Central High School) and how important they were to me. I tell them that if they support somebody who's being harassed they could help somebody live another day. They could be somebody's hope.

"I say, no matter what kind of school you come from, no matter how supportive the school environment, there are some people in that school who, because of some perceived difference, will think it's OK to harass, and other people will turn their backs. And being silent witnesses is giving consent to the harassers.

"If I contribute anything in life, I want it to be that."

Eckford never did graduate from Central High School. She joined the U.S. Army, earned her GED, and in the 1960s she returned to Little Rock to be closer to her parents.

"Enough time had passed that more and more people didn't know my history, and it was not so hard coming here."

Her job as a probation officer, a position she has had since the 1960s, provides her perspective on the criminal justice system.

"The public defender's system is overwhelmed. ... the kind of justice one eventually gets is impacted by what your economic resources are.

"The people in the orange jumpsuits are the have-nots," she continues. "They are the people most likely to be convicted and have a more severe level of conviction because they don't have access to an advocate who is really working hard for them."

Now 62, Eckford admits she'd like to try her hand at storytelling.

"I have this terrible habit of listening to a probation officer talking to a probationer at another desk," she laughs. "And sometimes when I see people and hear just a little bit, my mind goes off on a tangent creating a far better story.

"I want to write about my grandfather," Eckford continues. "My grandfather had a tremendous impact on at least two generations of our family. He'd say, 'What'd you learn in school today?' He would keep reminding you that this is important. And if you want to have a better life ... you should go to college. And by the way, I think you're smart enough to go. That was a message that was communicated all the time. All the time."

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