LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — Elizabeth Eckford takes a moment to adjust the collar of her dress. The black-and-white gabardine chemise accentuates her petite frame, but is uncomfortably warm in the midday sun.
Forty years ago, Ms. Eckford wore another black-and-white dress: a cotton outfit with capped sleeves and a wide skirt. Like other 1950s teenagers, Eckford accessorized her homemade dress with bobby socks and penny loafers.
The night before she was to start freshman classes at Little Rock Central High School, Eckford stayed up past her bedtime to starch and iron the dress. On the morning of Sept. 4, she donned a pair of sunglasses, grabbed a three-ring notebook and walked confidently toward 14th and Park streets to a multistoried buff brick structure once called the "most beautiful high school in America."
By the time she reached West 16th Street, she knew she wouldn't get to show off the flared skirt that now concealed her trembling knees. Ahead, one white girl after another walk assuredly through a wall of Arkansas National Guardsmen. But the soldiers met the diminutive black teen with defiant stares and raised rifle butts, sending her away from the school entrance and into a segregationist mob that clawed her skin, ripped at her clothing, and spat in her face as she fled.
Photos of that morning are displayed today in a museum across from Central High. But Eckford hasn't seen them. "When things quiet down a little, I'll go inside and see them, but I'm just not ready yet," she says.
On Saturday, Eckford and fellow classmate Jefferson Thomas spoke briefly at one of several events scheduled to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Central's desegregation. Her initial opposition to the museum has softened. "This is a place where we can begin the process of reflection, but this place is not an alibi for atonement."
After she and the other eight students completed their first year at Central, some left the state and others remained but were home-schooled; all Little Rock public schools were closed in 1958 after the Arkansas legislature passed a prosegregation bill sponsored by Gov. Orval Faubus. After attending college in Illinois, Eckford returned to Little Rock in the 1960s and worked in the public schools as a substitute teacher. Fittingly, it was there she found a measure of atonement in teaching social studies in junior high school.
"My kids were precious," she recalls. "Years after I first taught, I was walking down the street near my house and one of my former students came up to me. He had his son in tow. Of course I didn't remember him, but he insisted he knew me. He said 'Ms. Eckford, I have a confession. I misbehaved terribly in one of your classes, and I've never apologized to you. I want to let you know how sorry I am.'"
Through the years she has maintained contact "off and on" with the others in the "Little Rock nine." "I'm glad these events have brought us together. It's not difficult now to talk about these things [at Central] as it once was. I learned that not talking about it wasn't the answer."