ROBERT SMITH, host:
Now a first day of school story like no other. It's part of our series on the battle over desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. Fifty years ago today, nine black students tried to attend Little Rock's all-white Central High School. What happened there changed the country.
Here is DAY TO DAY's Alex Chadwick with the story of one of those children and her back to school nightmare.
ALEX CHADWICK: Labor Day evening 50 years ago, the governor of Arkansas asks for emergency TV and radio time to speak to the state.
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Governor ORVAL FAUBUS (Democrat, Arkansas): Units of the Nation Guard have been and are now being mobilized with the mission to maintain or restore the peace and good order of this community.
CHADWICK: The guard was there to prevent violence, Orval Faubus said. No, said others, he was making things worse, his emergency.
The Little Rock School Board was allowing nine black students to attend the previously all-white high school. And on that first day, September 4th, the nine were supposed to meet to go together as group to school. But in that morning there was confusion, and one of them took a city bus to the school by herself.
Ms. ELIZABETH ECKFORD (Little Rock Nine): I'm Elizabeth Eckford. I'm 65 years old now. Fifty years ago I was part of a picture that has become iconic when I attempted to enter Little Rock Central High School and I was turned away by the Arkansas National Guard and subsequently followed by angry demonstrators.
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CHADWICK: There were also reporters and photographers, and among them Will Counts. He took the image that captured that day at Central High. It's at our Web site, npr.org.
There's Elizabeth, arms cradled, holding a notebook in front of her like a small shield. She's wearing a crisply starched white dress. She has large sunglasses with a tortoise shell frame. She's walking, alone, in an angry crowd. A white girl right behind her, Elizabeth's age, this girl's face twisted in hatred and anger; the picture so powerful, you could hear it. She's on the second syllable, -ger...
Fifty years later, it is still a strain for Elizabeth Eckford to recall these moments. Some of this story is better told by others.
Twenty-four-year-old Krystal Mercer is a guide for the National Park Service.
Ms. KRYSTAL MERCER (National Park Service): We are at the corner of 12th and Park Street. This is where Elizabeth Eckford got off a public bus to attend her first day at Central High School. So a very emotional place; there's ghosts in this area.
CHADWICK: Krystal works at the visitor's Center across the street from the school, which is still a school today. Krystal went there. She loved it, though she knew everything that happened. Her father was a lawyer then for the NAACP, so she's grown up surrounded by the history of the students known as Little Rock Nine and haunted by the personal story of Elizabeth Eckford.
Ms. MERCER: Being a teenager, 15 years old, it's your first day of school. Her and her sister spent most of the summer sewing this really beautiful dress. It was a white shirtwaist and it had a little checkered pattern at the bottom, and brand new shoes, and her hair was done up nice.
So Elizabeth walks up to this corner and that's when the mob - they see her and say there's one of them now, and they go berserk, calling her all kind of names, calling her nigger. Go back to Africa. They're chanting two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate. They're whistling Dixie. People were spitting on her, they're threatening her, and she walks very slowly. Now, you can imagine she was shell-shocked. Now, just like you have the microphone here and you're talking and you're asking me questions; there were reporters on the ground that day - Elizabeth, how do you feel, taking pictures; Elizabeth, what's going on through your head right now?
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Unidentified Man (Reporter): Are you going to go to school here at Central High? You don't care to say anything, is that right?
This girl here was the first Negro apparently of high school age to show up at Central High School the day that the federal court ordered it integrated. She was followed in front of the school by an angry crowd, many of them shouting epithets at her.
CHADWICK: Perhaps 10 minutes have passed now since she got off that bus. The high school is to her right; a massive, handsome old building two blocks long. It's surrounded by a row of Guardsmen spaced 10 feet apart. There's a cluster of them where a walk leads across the grounds and into the refuge of the building. But when Elizabeth tries to pass through that line, one of the Guard steps in front of her. You will not get in here, he says.
Ms. ECKFORD: As I stepped out into the street, the people surged forward. I couldn't go back in the direction I had come, but I knew that there was another bus stop at the opposite end. And I fastened on the thought of getting to that bus stop as some measure of safety.
But before that, I had looked in the face of a woman for help because I had been raised to look to adults for help, and she spat on me. That was the first time I'd ever known that there are adults who would knowingly act to hurt a child.
CHADWICK: She made that long walk to the bus stop. She took a seat by herself on the bench and waited, the mob snarling all around. And at last a moment of decency. Here's Krystal Mercer again.
Ms. MERCER: There is a reporter who is from New York. His name was Benjamin Fine. Mr. Fine put his arm around Elizabeth and he said, don't let them see you cry. And I think that was important for her. That gave her a little bit of hope that someone cared. So for a brief moment the mob turns their attention from Elizabeth and they put it on Mr. Fine.
And they're like, oh, you hooked-nose Jew, we're going to castrate you. We're going to lynch you up by this tree and, you know, started saying things to him, agitating him.
Some people still say things to Elizabeth. The bus pulls up and there is a lady, her name was Grace Lorch. She was also a parent at the time. She gets off the bus and she talks back to them. She says, hey, you know, this is a child, what are you doing?
And she picks Elizabeth up and gets her on the bus and gets her to her mother's office safely, where she bawled and had nightmares for weeks, obviously, under such pressure and strain. But when it was time for them to come back to school, Elizabeth came back. So I think that's pretty important, pretty powerful, if you ask me.
CHADWICK: Krystal Mercer, a history guide for the National Park Service and a graduate of Little Rock Central High a few years ago. In our interview, Elizabeth Eckford asked me to stop asking her for memories, and I turned off my recorder. But when she began to speak about the photograph again, that moment of pain and humiliation and courage, I raised the microphone.
Ms. ECKFORD: One time I asked people to not put that picture in front of my face. They didn't understand. They kept bringing that picture for me to sign. So what I do now is I keep some tissues and put it over the pictures as though I'm protecting it, while I sign the skirt. Please let this be the end.
CHADWICK: That was the end of our interview, but not the end of the story. None of the Little Rock Nine got into school that day. In the coming weeks and months, we'll hear what happened with this singular event in Little Rock, Arkansas that helped redefine the land of the free and the home of the truly brave.
And remember, there's more about all of these, including that famous photo of Elizabeth Eckford at our Web site, npr.org.
For DAY TO DAY, this is Alex Chadwick.
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