Walking to Class, Into the History Books Fifty years ago, a group of black teenagers known as the Little Rock Nine faced down an angry white mob in Arkansas and integrated Central High School. Farai Chideya talks with three of the Little Rock Nine as they reflect back on that historic day, and recount their high school experiences.

Walking to Class, Into the History Books

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

In September 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, nine black students marched to a hostile white crowd. They entered Central High School and the history books. But first, they had to deal with Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. He called in the state's National Guard to stop the integration even though the Supreme Court had ordered it. Then President Eisenhower stepped in. He ordered the U.S. Army to escort the group known as the Little Rock Nine to their first day of school.

They made it inside on September 25th. But the struggle of the Little Rock Nine didn't end once they'd enrolled. Many white students attacked and taunted the black students. One black student was expelled from Central for fighting back. Families of the nine were chased out of town. Only a third of the original students graduated from Central.

I spoke earlier with three of the Little Rock Nine. Melba Beals is chair of the Communications Department at Dominican University of California. She's author of the award-winning memoir "Warriors Don't Cry." Terrence Roberts is a professor of psychology at Antioch University in Los Angeles. And Elizabeth Eckford is a probation officer in Little Rock. She's the single black student in that famous photo taken on her first day at Central. You can see that picture if you go to our Web site nprnewsandnotes.org.

Ms. Eckford told me what it was like to be surrounded by the angry crowd.

Ms. ELIZABETH ECKFORD (Probation Officer, Little Rock): I was terrified, but what amazes me now is that there are people who called themselves spokesman for that class year. And they say that those people were from some place else. They don't know where those people came from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ECKFORD: And it must be from out of town. It must have been part of a caravan that came here. But - and no attempts to - identifying people was made by the local press. But since then, some have become known. The girl immediately behind me in that iconic photograph is named Hazel Bryan Massery. As a student, she was Hazel Bryan. And she did attend Central, but she left sometime in October.

CHIDEYA: And you developed a relationship in adult life. Tell me about that.

Ms. ECKFORD: I met her in 1997. We were brought together by the photographer who took the original picture. I had talked to her in 1963 on the phone. But at that time, I didn't know which of the girls behind me she was. She called to apologize. And in the two years we spent together, we'd spoke to students who came to Little Rock to learn about that part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Unfortunately, Hazel says she had amnesia about that and she didn't know - didn't remember anything. But over a period of time, when she was relaxed, I came to understand that she had contact with those students every Saturday on a local dance show and that she was part of an organized group that attacked us physically in the school.

CHIDEYA: It was a situation where - even when the National Guard was following you around, they stood back several paces.

Professor Roberts, what do you remember about that - those kinds of attacks that Ms. Eckford was talking about?

Dr. TERRENCE ROBERTS (Professor of Psychology, Antioch University): Well, they were constant. And even with the guards present, it was possible for kids to simply race up behind us and push, shove, kick, spit or whatever, and then take off running. So they devised many, many ways. The main goal was to try to force us out.

Ms. ECKFORD: And it was allowed to continue because the principal said we were to report incidences, but he wouldn't do anything about it if a teacher didn't verify what we said.

Professor MELBA BEALS (Chair, Communications Department, Dominican University of California; Author, "Warrior Don't Cry"): But as I remember we called him smiling Jeff Matthews(ph), he had a perpetual smile. If you told him that you had a colleague lying in the slur being kicked in the stomach, I remember one day reporting that. I think it was Terry or Ernie being kicked in the stomach. And he had the most angelic smile. But he did nothing. He didn't write it down, he didn't say anything, he didn't do anything. He just listened and smiled.

Ms. ECKFORD: I remember that the superintendent was always urging us not to talk to the press. His was the first book out.

Prof. BEALS: I think until "Warriors" - my book, "Warriors Don't Cry," came out, people didn't realize the extent of which we were tortured daily, like the consistent walking on the back of my heel. When I step off a curve today, the backs of my Achilles hurt because there was guy trained to do that every day from class to class. My eyes are not where they could be because the guy trained to put acids in the eye. So, it was a trained, it was a formidable, it was a structured kind of behavior. But, of course, we - as - I think all three of us do, we think that those guards were instrumental in saving us in terms of those early kinds of acts, which were most vicious.

Dr. ROBERTS: (Unintelligible).

Prof. BEALS: Yeah. Really.

Ms. ECKFORD: And again, for 25 to 30 years, none of us talked about what it was like inside school so that some of the students are dismayed, but their concern is how other people view them - those people who turned their backs and would even acknowledge what they saw or heard.

Prof. BEALS: It's true.

Ms. ECKFORD: They want to be congratulated for having tolerated us.

Prof. BEALS: But the reality is when I wrote the book, for example, I cried for months and months and months. Took six to seven years of therapy to get to the core of the whole thing because we were so instructed not to let it be known how we really felt, not to cry out, not to ask for help. And those instructions were what really helped us to thread(ph) us through. But in another way, they quieted a part of us that needs to be head.

CHIDEYA: Professor Roberts, did you have - and I'm wondering, if this is in any way gendered. It sounds like all of you had to kind of just hide yourselves so that you could survive. Was it any different for the boys than the girls or was it all part or the same?

Dr. ROBERTS: No. No difference at all. We were under those same constraints. I think everybody wanted to sort of put the best pace on this thing at the time. Nobody was willing to really confront the major issues that were going on, especially the stuff that we were facing inside the school.

CHIDEYA: What did you do when you went home? Every day when you left Central High and you went home to your family, did you have to decompress? How did your family treat you? Did they try to comfort you?

Ms. ECKFORD: I dare not tell my parents because my mother, who I call the queen of know, was an overly protective parent and she would not have let me continue. So, I never told them. My father was 85 when I showed him the first documentary. My mother died in 1992.

Prof. BEALS: I think that's was the same for all of us that we couldn't - we could talk sometimes to each other but not even to each other. But we couldn't talk to our parents about the truth because we knew the result of that. The result of that would be we will be pulled out of the school and the paths that we had set for ourselves that have been set for us - the agenda that set for us. In fact, Martin Luther King said you're not doing this for yourself, you're doing it for generations yet unborn.

CHIDEYA: But do you ever feel that you sacrifice yourselves for a goal that has not yet been realized or that has been thwarted when you…

Ms. ECKFORD: That's so much - so much of a difference between now and then. I have difficulty getting students to understand what segregation was like. Yes, it's much, much more to do, but life has changed very much because of the Civil Rights Movement.

Prof. BEALS: And I feel that what we did - hey, you know what we did? We made them an offer that they couldn't refuse. Up until then, it would have been please let me come your school on our knees. That offer made on that field changed history and takes me from the age 65 to look back and see the reality of it. It takes me from an age where I've been a professor now for 10 years teaching it to look back on it and say, you know what? Yes, we have moved forward. We have moved forward enormously.

CHIDEYA: Well, Professor Roberts, many of you - all of you, on some levels, have become educators. And you - and when you are working in an educational context, how do you transmit to young students the importance of what happened and how do you tell them that they should relate to it?

Dr. ROBERTS: Actually, I talked to them about maintaining very high levels of self-awareness so that they can be very clear about who they are as people and each one of us is simply a product of the cultural new youth from which we emanate.

Many students don't have an awareness, though, of that will process. So that's step one in the process of really understanding what's needful by way of change. And then we talk about what they can do as individuals and as parts of groups in a society.

CHIDEYA: Now, the three of you, when you get together with all of the other people who integrated Central High, what kind of - you're a part of this ongoing celebration, but what kind of internal conversations are you having with each other about this moment in time, about what you've been through?

Ms. ECKFORD: We've become our real self. Jefferson Thomas was a very, very funny person, but people in Central didn't see that. Ernest Green was a very sociable person, and that was not shown. We just sort of withdrew within ourselves. And we become our real self.

Prof. BEALS: And Terry Roberts - yeah, Terry Roberts is funny. He whistles a lot. And I was in the first grade with him. Okay. And he's not change enormously from being this very quiet, spiritual guide for us. And so we come together, we're like a family. We're like brothers and sisters who haven't seen each other and we've fallen to almost, from my perspective, some of the same roles we held when we were in school.

Dr. ROBERTS: Yeah. We truly are a group.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you about the Jena Six case. A lot of people now with the massive protests are comparing this to the civil rights era. In what ways do you think that that comparison is accurate and in what ways is it not?

Dr. ROBERTS: Oh, I think Jena points out the fact that in this country, we have yet to really tackle the basic issue and that is the underlying roots of racism in this country that gave rise to that sort of thing that happened in Jena. That gave rise to James Byrd being dragged by a truck in Texas and et cetera, et cetera. Always you will have this until and unless we confront that basic issue.

Ms. ECKFORD: I remember that because of the dramatic images the people around the world saw of an ugly reality of Little Rock and America that that is the reason that President Eisenhower reluctantly finally acted, because this was during the time of Cold War. And so that's when he took federal control of the Arkansas National Guard and sent the paratroopers here because then he said mob rule could not prevail. But before, he - his conversation was that this is something about to the state to settle.

Dr. ROBERTS: Right. A local issue.

Prof. BEALS: Mm-hmm.

Dr. ROBERTS: That's exactly right.

CHIDEYA: So, Professor Beals, you actually had to leave the area. Your whole family had to leave. Tell me why?

Prof. BEALS: Well, I think all of us left because the clan at the time was riding what - 10,000 dead, five alive. There were hints of all sorts of rude things to our families. Several of the parents have been fired. My mother. I believe Gloria Ray Karlmark's parents. Everybody's parents, Terry, I think, your parents - every parents suffered. I really - I think Mrs. Eckford did, too. Everybody's parents were suffering from this and the children were being told don't ever go back to this school again. And so we had no choice but to get out.

Dr. ROBERTS: That's (unintelligible)…

Ms. ECKFORD: There were four of us who remained in Little Rock. Had all of us left, a suit that the NSCB had pending would have gone mute.

Prof. BEALS: Exactly. So the four brave souls remained behind to carry on that suit.

Ms. ECKFORD: And some families had no choice but to leave.

Dr. ROBERTS: But probably, too, this closure of the schools prompted some departure.

CHIDEYA: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BEALS: Right.

Dr. ROBERTS: Public high schools were all closed by the following school year.

CHIDEYA: That was Terrence Roberts, Melba Beals and Elizabeth Eckford. Don't go away because just ahead we've got more of my conversation with these members of the Little Rock Nine. And later in the show: jazz giant Ornette Coleman.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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