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JOHN BRUMMETT: Elizabeth endures

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Photographs by Democrat Gazette file photo/WILL COUNTS

Hazel Bryan shouts insults at Elizabeth Eckford as she walks past a line of National Guardsman.

Elizabeth Eckford spoke softly, tersely, and with understated power.

Even as a child, she'd needed no words to speak profoundly. She'd needed only to endure.

All she was trying to do the morning of Sept. 5, 1957--her head down, her notebook at her chest, her manner shy and her dignity soaring--was go to school.

She had a new homemade dress. She was excited, but tense. Her father, who worked nights and normally slept late, was up, pacing. The family gathered for a prayer before she headed out alone, all of 15, to catch the city bus.

Due to an oversight occurring because her family had no phone, she hadn't received word that, because of demagogic state politics and the rumored gathering of brutal white hate, the youths known as the Little Rock Nine would arrive together with adult accompaniment for the first day of school.

The idea had been for these carefully chosen standout children to make history by daring to carry their dark complexions into Little Rock Central High School to desegregate that raging Southern Caucasian fortress.

But the eight were turned back.

I use "desegregate," not "integrate," because Eckford uses "desegregate," and she gets to decide, and she is right.

That wasn't racial integration, she told an admiring audience during a panel discussion Thursday night with Janis Kearney and Annie Abrams at UA-Pulaski Tech. It was, she said, a minimalist acquiescence to the law.

It was the least Little Rock could do.

That morning in 1957, Eckford walked two blocks from a bus stop to the massive, imposing school. She saw a crowd and thought that odd. She heard murmuring as she came closer. She was relieved to see National Guardsmen, then confused when the soldiers raised their weapons to deny her passage to the school grounds.

The photograph that went around the world, and horrified anyone of human decency, showed white primitives coming up behind to stalk and hurl slurs at this solitary girl.

It happened as she ventured away from the place of learning that had rejected her and toward a bus bench that she thought might provide solace. It showed a white girl shouting at her angrily.

If I were to write a caption, I'd choose "black supremacy."

Prejudice, she told this night's audience at Pulaski Tech, is about people trying to make you believe you are less than they are. You find yourself indeed feeling lesser, she said, when you are shunned day after day--until sixth period and speech class when two white kids unfailingly talked with her.

They couldn't have known how much that meant to her, she said. She told them 30 years later. She never mentioned their names publicly because she feared their families might sustain community reprisal.

For decades, Eckford spoke not a public word about the experience. She said it was because of the pain.

She began talking to schoolkids in 1999, and, for a while, cried every time.

"But now I don't cry," she said, winning applause, presumably for overcoming. But she had always overcome. She had always been more, not less--when she cried, when she was silent, when she put one tender foot in front of the other.

At 76, Eckford sat in front of Thursday's audience still and stately, but somehow ill at ease. She spoke with low-volume articulation. She tended to deliver two or three well-designed and on-point sentences. Then she stopped talking. You waited a couple of seconds for her to continue. But she didn't. And the moderator moved on.

With elegant forbearance, Eckford eschewed racial resentment, racial politics or even a racial framing of this great ordeal of her life and our time.

We all come from Africa and we all contain pieces of each other, she said. Race, she said, is an arbitrary social construction of our detrimental choosing that is all about a power-setting order.

Kearney, the moderator, asked Eckford the ultimate question: Sixty years after, was what she endured worth it?

Whites have been running out of public schools ever since Eckford bravely walked toward one.

Eckford did not answer. The question had two parts, and she replied to the other, then stopped.

This question that loomed for the evening looms over us every day. For the seminal investment of Elizabeth's pain and our shame, what is today's dividend?

I thought about asking her again after the program. But the people selling her book said she would not appear for a signing.

Then I saw her. She was trying to leave, but elevators must be waited for. Admirers--young black female students, mainly--were gathered around her, seeking and taking photos.

I thought that Eckford, while patiently obliging, seemed uncomfortable standing in the middle of pressing people.

The moment was right for a Little Rock white man, at long last, to leave Elizabeth Eckford alone.

It's not on her if we've wasted her pain.

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John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 02/13/2018

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