By The Arkansas Delta Informer Staff — From September 22nd to 25th, 2022, five members of the Nine, Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Minnijean Brown-Trickey, Gloria Ray Karlmark and Dr. Terrence Roberts attended city-wide commemorations recognizing the Anniversary of the desegregation of Central High. Two participated via Zoom, Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals and Carlotta Walls Lanier. The apt theme was “Silence is NOT an Option.” Programs were hosted by the Little Rock Central High National Historic Site and the City of Little Rock to address critical issues impacting the community such as mental health and wellness equity, social and emotional recovery concepts, best practices for educational empowerment and policing. However, the final event was a portrait unveiling and a children’s book signing.
The presentation was civil rights icon Elizabeth Eckford’s first time speaking at the school and the last official event of the 65th commemoration. The event also included appearances by other members of the Little Rock Nine, former President Bill Clinton, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. Those close to Elizabeth have noted her evolution and marvel at her progress. Even President Clinton, who has been with the Nine for years since hosting their first reunion in 1977, noted her poise as she spoke in his official comments. Once a shrinking violet, Elizabeth now wears bright colors, laughs aloud, and shares her truth with confidence.
On Monday, September 26th, Eckford presented with her coauthors, mother-daughter writing duo Dr. Eurydice Stanley and Grace Stanley, and captivated students when they introduced The Worst First Day to more than 2,500 students at Central High. It was a triumphant return to Central for Eckford. Prior to the presentation, a mural was unveiled memorializing the impact of Elizabeth’s first day image with Elizabeth in the foreground with the Supreme Court and the scales of justice behind her. It was a powerful rendition of the impact of the Nine’s contributions to the civil right movement.
Elizabeth and the Nine endured a year of being terrorized and bullied by students, parents, teachers, and school administrators. Despite daily attacks, they stayed at Central High because they understood the importance of their success. The Nine are recognized as critical civil rights icons due to their tenacity and resilience. They serve as exemplary examples for today’s leaders.
“You could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium,” said Dr. Stanley. “The kids were completely engrossed and loved hearing that Grace was 15 when she helped write the book, which means they can too.”
“Elizabeth was so happy to return to Central… it was very special. Our key message combats racism, bullying and suicide” said Dr. Stanley. “I have had the joy of being the friend and mentee of Civil Rights Icon Elizabeth Eckford, the first member of the Nine to arrive at Central High and face an enraged mob alone, for more than 20 years. She was immortalized by an image captured by photographer Will Counts that became one of the most iconic photos of the twentieth century. Being close to Elizabeth has provided the opportunity to see the long-term impact of the abuse she endured every day as a member of the Little Rock Nine. But I have also had the blessing of watching her heal and grow due to telling her story.”
“In 2017, my daughter Grace and I helped Elizabeth write her autobiography, The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Central High to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High. For the past five years, we have travelled the country using her experiences to combat racism, discrimination, bullying, suicide, and show the power of kindness. We have also promoted the importance of resilience and tenacity to audiences, critical concepts in today’s world. Elizabeth has received numerous awards for her contributions to the civil rights movement during this time, to include an honorary doctorate from Knox College and the “Champion of Justice” award during the grand opening of the Legacy Museum from Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative” concludes Stanley.
The Worst First Day shares her experiences behind the scenes during the Central High crisis as a 15-year-old student. On September 4, 1957, Elizabeth was blocked from entering Central High by a group of enraged segregationists and armed Arkansas National Guard soldiers. A powerful photo taken of her enduring an attack at Central became one of the most iconic images of the 20th century… it effectively portrayed the racial tension of the era.
The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Central High (www.worstfirstday.com) is the captivating autobiography of Civil Rights Icon Elizabeth Eckford, member of the Little Rock Nine. It introduces the next generation to a modern-day heroine. This is a story for the whole family. In this epic tale, Elizabeth’s historical insights are shared entirely in verse, illuminated by captivating images that will both educate and inspire readers of all ages. Her story is an incredible testament of tenacity and resilience.
The portrait unveiling and children’s book signing closed the Little Rock Central High School 65th anniversary celebration. Sessions covered a diverse range of issues, including mental health and wellness, equity in education, and the criminal justice system; selected specialists in their respective fields and distinguished local and national contributors served as voices of experience to further these exchanges on diverse topics. Collectively, the programs brought together participants for dialogues on the ongoing movement for equality, equity, and social justice.
The capstone commemoration event was held Sunday, September 25th, when the street in front of Central High was renamed “Little Rock Nine Way.” Elizabeth likes to call the street, “Nine Way” because it feels like an inside joke with her friends. Ernest Green stated that when they were with one another, they “felt like teens”. Elizabeth noted, “Given our age, this may be the last time we could be together, so it made our reunion that much more poignant.”