Life After Little Rock: Elizabeth Eckford

In 1954, the American Supreme Court declared the continuation of school segregation to be unlawful… though it would be 3 years until Arkansas capital city, Little Rock, actually acted on this.

Thanks to a huge amount of pressure from the Little Rock NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) it was agreed that in September 1957, 9 black students could enrol at the -until then- whites only, Little Rock Central High School.

They became known as the Little Rock Nine. A group of teens, all specially picked for their intelligence and desire to learn. All of them were about to make history. And all of them would be ripped to shreds in the process.

Of the 9, one would became an overnight icon for American civil rights. 

Meet Elizabeth Eckford, if you don’t know her name, I guarantee you know her face:

The infamous 1957 image of 15 yr old Elizabeth Eckford walking to Little Rock Central High School
Elizabeth Eckford, in the infamous image of her walking into Little Rock Central High, 1957

That day, that picture, would change everything for Elizabeth. But on the morning of September 4th 1957, Elizabeth had no clue of the dark path that lay ahead. Her biggest concern? What to wear for the first day of school.

Elizabeth’s Dad paced the family home, as her Mum finished up doing her hair. Making sure it perfectly complimented the white and navy dress that Elizabeth had specially made for the day.

The family didn’t have a phone, so Elizabeth didn’t get the messages that, for their safety, the Little Rock Nine kids were being escorted to school.

So, whilst the others kids gathered together, entering the safety of a car convey. Elizabeth grabbed her lunch money, said goodbye to her parents and ran for the bus. Just like any other high schooler.

Which was how, totally unprepared and alone, 15 year old Elizabeth was confronted with this.

Elizabeth Eckford on the walk to Little Rock Central High School, 1957
Elizabeth Eckford walking through a mob, on her way to Little Rock Central High, 1957

Just like that, Elizabeth was set apart. She wasn’t just one of the Little Rock 9, she was an icon of the horrors of the Jim Crow era. Her image indelibly seared into American History.

Of course, this didn’t mean she was protected from her schoolmates.

Documents from the school show that Elizabeth received a constant barrage of abuse. Here are just some examples, from her first term at Central High:

October: Elizabeth hit with a shower of sharpened pencils.
October 28: Elizabeth shoved in hall.
November 20: Elizabeth jostled in gym.
November 21: Elizabeth hit with paper clip.
December 10: Elizabeth kicked.        December 18: Elizabeth punched.

Elizabeth tried to defend herself by sticking dress pins through her binder, creating a sharp shield. But it didn’t stop the constant stream of racist insults.

And in the locker room, she was totally defenceless. There, her classmates would scald her with hot shower water and leave broken glass for her to tread on.

In a 2018 interview with Vice, Elizabeth spoke of how she, and the other members of the Little Rock Nine were treated, saying:

‘We were knocked down stairs, kicked, scalded in gym showers, body-slammed into wall lockers. We were generally knocked-about every day. It never ceased.’

Members of the Little Rock Nine pose together, 1957
Elizabeth and the other members of the Little Rock Nine with then Arkansas NAACP President, Daisy Bates

Barely a year after Elizabeth walked into Central High, Little Rock voted to shut down all its public high schools, rather than desegregate them.

Central High shut and Elizabeth and her family left behind the media circus. Moving to St Louis, where Elizabeth got her GED. She studied for a college degree and became one of the first African Americans to work in a non-janitorial position in a St Louis bank.

On paper it sounds great, but Elizabeth’s reality was far from it.

Little Rock had left her with a lot of trauma. She’d experienced the worst kind of abuse. Every day. For a year.

At the same time she’d became a poster child for civil rights. Her picture continued to be everywhere, holding Elizabeth up as icon of stoic strength, of fighting back and overcoming.

As she sank further into depression, Elizabeth felt far from the pillar of strength she was painted as.

It was at this time that she made several attempts on her life.

School photo of Elizabeth Eckford.png
A school photo of Elizabeth Eckford

Then in 1967, in a bid to start a new life for herself, Elizabeth joined the army.

Keen to erase Little Rock from her past, she didn’t mention it to any of her squad mates and actively worked to keep any publication that might even feature her name, well away from the mess hall.

By 1974, Elizabeth had left the army and made the surprising decision to return to Little Rock. She told the Arkansas Democrat:

‘I came back because I felt I was chased away and because I thought it was cowardly and I wanted to come back and prove I could live in this situation. I don’t intend to be driven out’

Elizabeth got a job in Little Rock’s Welfare Office. And, over the next few years she had two beautiful sons, Erin and Calvin. Though the relationships with the boys Dads didn’t work out, she doted on her boys.

Finally it looked like things were falling back together for Elizabeth and her little family. But there was one big issue: depression.

Depression isn’t something you can run from. It’s something you have to tackle head on. It takes medicine, therapy, support and help. Something that a low income black single mum in Arkansas in the 1970s, didn’t have.

So when the depression caught up with Elizabeth, it hit her. Hard.

Elizabeth couldn’t work anymore, going on Veterans disability benefit. As her income dried up, she sank ever further, hardly leaving the house. She would miss meals so she could afford toys for her boys, and spend hours just desperately trying to get out of bed.

All the while, Elizabeth was dodging calls from journalists who were looking for an interview with a woman she didn’t recognise. That towering figure of silent strength, the famous Elizabeth Eckford.

And so, she stayed hidden away, trapped in a deep well of depression.

This lasted for almost 20 years.

But then in the late 90s things turned a corner. Elizabeth finally got access to support and help. And slowly, she started to regain the strength to get back up again.

In 1997 she reunited with the rest of the Little Rock Nine, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of that fateful day in 1957.

And it was here, that the world found out that Elizabeth had befriended perhaps the most unlikely woman:

Hazel Bryan follows Elizabeth Eckford into Little Rock Central High, 1957
Hazel Bryan. The teenager who followed Elizabeth on that first day of school in 1957, hurling a barrage of racist abuse.

6 years after Little Rock, in 1963, A now 23 year old, Hazel Bryan, called Elizabeth and apologised.

Just like Elizabeth she’d been scarred by Little Rock, but for very different reasons. Hazel could never leave behind her actions, the pictures of her 16 year old self haunting her.

Elizabeth accepted her apology (though, until then she’d never actually known the name of the white girl that had hurled the abuse) and the girls went their separate ways.

Hazel married and had 3 children, living an affluent middle class lifestyle. And, as time went on, she tried to make up for her past. She volunteered as a counsellor to black students and worked with low income mothers to be. She worked in peace groups and charities. She even confronted her mother over her racist beliefs, causing a huge family argument.

She did everything she could for both personal and public atonement. But it never came.

Then in 1997, ahead of Little Rock’s 40th commemoration, she was asked to meet Elizabeth Eckford.

Once more, Hazel apologised to Elizabeth, who once more, accepted.

Then the two mothers talked about their children, their lives and realised they had a lot in common. So they agreed to take another picture together.

Almost 40 years after Hazel followed Elizabeth to Central High, screaming racist abuse at her. The woman meet again outside the school. This time, their arms around each other.

Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Byran pose outside of Little Rock Central High, 1997
Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Byran pose outside of Little Rock Central High, 1997, in a picture that would once more sweep America

The picture was immediately everywhere. Dubbed ‘reconciliation’, it was a symbol that America was moving on from its dark past. That it’s previous sins could be forgiven. It was hope for Little Rock and communities like it across America. And it was all tied up in a neat package.

Elizabeth and Hazel took it all on. Sitting together for interviews, documentaries and political calls. They bonded over their kids and would meet up to go to flower shows, and have meals together.

And, in an unpredictable turn of events, Elizabeth grew protective of Hazel.

Hazel was one of the only members of the white mob to publicly acknowledge their deeds. And so, Elizabeth stuck up for her new friend. When the true motive behind Hazel’s frequent public apologies were questioned by the other members of the Little Rock Nine and the media, it was Elizabeth who came to Hazel’s defence.

But, gradually the friendship started to crack.

The crux of the issue was Elizabeth realisation that Hazel hoped one day her friend would move on from her actions in 1957.
Elizabeth later said:

‘She wanted me to be cured and be over it and for this not to go on anymore… She wanted me to be less uncomfortable so that she wouldn’t feel responsible.”

By the early 2000s the pair weren’t speaking.

Though Elizabeth had cut ties with Hazel she made one acceptation. Allowing the picture of the pair, once called ‘reconciliation’, to continue being sold at a centre that told the story of The Little Nine. Keen that the centre wouldn’t lose funds from one of its best selling items.

Her only caveat was that all the pictures sold were labelled with a sticker that read:

True reconciliation can occur only when we honestly acknowledge our painful, but shared, past

Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan sign posters of their famed picture 'reconciliation'
Elizabeth and Hazel Bryan during a poster signing of their famed picture ‘reconciliation’

Elizabeth stayed low for the next few years. She’d managed to rejoin the workforce in 1999. Becoming a probation officer, renowned for both her firm nature and ability to connect with her charges.

She also threw herself into speaking; going to schools to talk to students about her experiences.

At first Elizabeth kept a waste paper basket at hand, just in case she needed to be sick. But as time went on, the fear shed and the waste paper basket sat forgotten. Elizabeth was finally able to stand on stage alone, a woman who both embraced her past and had outgrown its trauma.

Then in 2003, it all fell apart, when, on New Years Day, her son, Erin, was shot and killed by police.

Little Rock Police were called by neighbours after they saw University student, Erin, firing an assault rifle into the air.

Police surrounded Erin, shooting him with a bean bag round. Erin then pointed his gun towards the officers, who opened fire. Erin was shot 6 times, dying of his injuries.

Erin had suffered from numerous mental health issues for years. No charges were pressed and Elizabeth later said that she feared her son had been trying to commit suicide by cop.

Headline from LA Times, 2003
Headline from the January 3rd 2003 edition of LA Times

Friends and family grew increasingly concerned, that with this latest devastating blow, Elizabeth would once more sink into an unreachable pit of depression.

But she didn’t.

Despite it all, Elizabeth rallied. Not as the iconic impenetrable pillar of strength of that photo, but with grit and determination. She fought and she struggled and she rose again.

To this day, Elizabeth continues to work and give talks.

She speaks of her experiences from 1957, of racism and the everyday inequality black Americans face.

In 2017, Elizabeth used Kickstarter to publish a book on her experiences, The Worst First Day. The book acts both as an autobiography and as a guide to children, who, just like Elizabeth did, face insurmountable odds. Reminding them that that no matter how many people tell them they can’t, they can make something of themselves.

And in, September 2018, Elizabeth stood in front of another crowd of students, as she received an honorary degree.

Her speech outlined how anyone can make a difference in this world. Because as Elizabeth knows first hand:

‘You don’t know what you can do until you have been tested.’

Elizabeth Eckford in front of Central High, Little Rock in 2007
50 years later, in 2007, Elizabeth Eckford stands strong outside of Little Rock Central High

This was interesting, where can I find out more? Well, first off I’d suggest looking at Elizabeth’s book, The Worst First Day.

Researching this, we also found this amazing article by David Margolick, incredibly illuminating. He has also written a book about Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryans friendship, Elizabeth and Hazel: two women of Little Rock, that is truly fascinating.

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