Tuesday, December 29, 2009

September 4, 1957

Elizabeth Eckford was a 15 year old student on September 4, 1957 when a photograph of her surrounded by a snarling white mob made history. Eckford was one of a group of nine African American students in Little Rock, Arkansas who attempted to integrate Little Rock Central High School in the wake of the “Brown versus Board of Education” US Supreme Court ruling in May 1954. The National Guard troops, at gunpoint, under orders of Governor Orval Faubus, had just prevented the 15 year old from entering the school grounds, when a white mob descended on the obviously terrified child. Right on Eckford’s heels is the unforgettable image of a white girl, her face distorted with hate, mouth wide open, spitting racist venom. The infamous photograph has been recognized as one of the most important photographs of the 20th Century by the Associated Press and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Another photograph from that horrific period which has the dubious honour of being part of a list of “ the most important photographs of the 20th Century” is one of Alex Wilson, an African American reporter covering the story of the attempt to integrate Little Rock Central High School, being brutalized by a white mob.

I was a small child the first time I saw those photographs (browsing through old Ebony and Jet magazines) and they had a chilling effect. Over the years I would see the photographs in books and frequently wondered if the white people captured in the act of terrorizing a lone 15 year old felt any shame or regret as those images were reproduced internationally. I especially wanted to know the name of the white girl, seen in each photograph of Elizabeth Eckford’s traumatizing experience. I wondered where she was living, if she had children how would she explain those photographs in the wake of the “victories” of the Civil Rights movement? Was she one of those people who provide “entertainment” on talk shows by expressing their hate for people who are not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP)? My questions were answered a few years ago when I attended the “Word on the Street” book and magazine festival while visiting the booth of one of our community bookstores, A Different Booklist. There on the cover of this book was one of the photographs that had been seared into my memory when I was a small child and it was on sale. The book had been published in 1999 and contained the photographs taken by Ira Wilmer Counts who was sent to cover the desegregation of his alma mater, Central High School in Little Rock by the Arkansas Democrat newspaper.

At last I had the name of Elizabeth Eckford’s tormentor, Hazel Bryan Massery. I was not surprised to read that Eckford who had been contacted by Massery in 1997 had forgiven the woman. We are the most forgiving people when it comes to forgiving people who torment, brutalize, oppress and terrify us because of our race. Could this be the reason why our people continue being racially harassed, profiled, terrorized, tormented, brutalized and oppressed? The image of the two middle aged women, one white one African American, smiling and hugging each other, has not in my mind erased the image of the hate filled white face dogging Eckford’s footsteps in the 1957 photographs. To her credit Massery is the only white person who has apologized to Eckford. Admittedly her face is the most hate filled image of the mob stalking the slender 15 year old child in those 1957 images but there were hundreds of adults in that mob (Massery was also a teenager in 1957) including a woman who spit in Eckford’s face.

Counts, the photographer whose work documented the Little Rock trauma for posterity is white, blended in with the crowd and photographed not only the terror to which the 15 year old Eckford was subjected on September 4th but also the brutal and cowardly assault of African American journalist Alex Wilson on September 23rd.

Unlike Counts whose white skin protected him from being terrorized and brutalized by the mob, Wilson and other African American journalists were identifiable and vulnerable. When the mob descended shouting, “Run n---er run,” Wilson refused to follow the other African American journalists who fled. He calmly let the howling white mob know “I fought for my country in the war and I'm not running from you." He suffered for his brave stand. Nattily dressed topped by his trade mark fedora he continued walking in dignity even after he was borne to the ground several times by members of that vicious cowardly white mob. It is heartbreaking to watch the images of this slim 6 foot 3 inch dignified African man subjected to the brutal indignity of being slapped, punched, kicked, choked, hit on the head with bricks wielded by cowards backed by a screaming mob of white men and women. It has been recorded and reported, each time Wilson was knocked down, he picked up his fedora replaced it on his head and kept walking in dignity. The frenzied white mob could not make this African man lose his dignity and run like a terrified creature. The baying pack of Wilson’s attackers left him bruised, bloodied but not vanquished when the cry went up that a group of African American students had succeeded in entering Little Rock’s Central High School.

Wilson never recovered from the brutal assault to which he was subjected in Little Rock, Arkansas on September 23rd, 1957. This man who as editor in chief of the African American newspaper Tri-State Defender from Memphis, Tennessee had traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas to cover the story of the nine brave students who put their lives on the line to hold white supremacist America accountable, paid with his life. He suffered neurological damage as a result of the abuse and died when he was 50 years old on Oct. 11, 1960.

Elizabeth Eckford was not the only African American student in Little Rock who suffered mental and physical abuse. Each member of the Little Rock Nine have told their stories and some have even written books about their experience as the first to try to desegregate Little Rock Central High School. Terrence Roberts another member of the Little Rock who was also 15 years old in 1957 spoke about his experiences in school where there were no cameras to capture images of the vicious attacks he and his classmates suffered at the hands of white students and the racism from teachers. "They did everything you could possibly think of that one human being might do to another.” He talked about being hit on the side of the head with a combination lock in the gymnasium locker room, so hard it drove him to his knees. He was left stunned and bleeding from the head wound that resulted from the vicious attack. Each member of the Little Rock Nine persevered in spite of the daily abuse to which they were subjected and triumphed by graduating from high school, advancing to post secondary education and fulfilling careers.

Ontario’s public school system was integrated without the drama of Little Rock. However the trauma was not absent. The last segregated school in Ontario closed in 1965. Speaking with African Canadians who attended integrated schools in Toronto in the 1960s and even 70s there are many stories of traumatic incidents suffered at the hands of white teachers and classmates. Imagine a six year old African Canadian child, a descendant of Africans who had lived in this country for six generations, being used by her white teacher as the teaching aid for the reading of “Little Black Sambo.” For her entire grade one year in a Toronto public school, she was tormented by the teacher sitting her in front of the class and making derogatory remarks about the texture of her hair, the shape of her nose, her lips and the colour of her skin.
Elizabeth Eckford whose image fired my interest in the story of the Little Rock Nine even before I understood the significance of their action, suffered more trauma as an adult. On the morning of January 1, 2003, her son Erin, 26, was shot and killed by police in Little Rock. He was a student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She has not allowed this tragedy to destroy her.

On Tuesday, August 30th, 2005 when the sculpture to honour the Little Rock Nine was unveiled at the Arkansas State Capitol she was there with the other eight members. A commemorative postage stamp was also released on the same day by the United States Postal Service in honour of the nine extraordinarily brave young people who risked life and limb to desegregate Little Rock Central High School. This year, 50 years after the nine students (Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Dr. Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls Lanier, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed-Wair, and Melba Pattillo Beals) made history they will return to speak on the steps of the high school on the morning of September 25, remembering the day 50 years ago when they integrated Little Rock Central High School. A new center will be dedicated to educating visitors about the role of the Little Rock Nine in the civil rights movement.

Written in September 2007

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