Crisis at Central High
John A. Kirk recalls the dramatic events at Little Rock, Arkansas, when a stand-off over the granting of black students access to integrated education brought the civil rights agenda to international attention.
On the morning of Wednesday, September 4th, 1957, fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Ann Eckford prepared for her first day of classes at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Leaving anxious parents behind, she caught the bus and alighted just a short distance from the school. About 400 people were gathered at the main entrance. Trying to avoid the crowd, Elizabeth attempted to enter by a side entrance. She was stopped by armed National Guard troops who had formed a cordon around the school. They directed Elizabeth to the main entrance. She made her way through the crowd, but found her path to entry blocked again. Elizabeth suddenly realized that she was at the mercy of a mob. ‘Lynch her! Lynch her!’ someone shouted. ‘No nigger bitch is going to get in our school. Get out of here!’ another screamed. Elizabeth made for the nearest bus stop, pursued by the mob. A bus soon arrived and sped her away from the scene before she could be harmed.
Fifty years ago this month, Elizabeth Eckford’s first day of classes marked the beginning of what would become known as the Little Rock crisis. For almost a month, Elizabeth and eight other students who endeavored to attend Central High – Minnijean Brown, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrance Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls – found themselves in the middle of a tug-of-war between federal and state power. The students, who would go down in history as the ‘Little Rock Nine’, placed their lives on the line at a pivotal moment in the unfolding struggle for black freedom and equality.