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Black History Month – those that influenced us – Elizabeth Ann Eckford

Date posted: 14 October 2020

During Black History Month our lawyers will be reflecting on the cases and the black lawyers and activists who have most influenced them in their legal career.

 

Our Shahailya Stephenson pays tribute to Elizabeth Ann Eckford.

 

The shades in this photograph may evoke coolness and the tight grasp of the folder may scream determination but there are often hidden scars. This year has brought many scars to the surface and it is important to remember the history of the same and strive to alleviate future scarring.

 

This Black History month I reflect upon the immeasurable contribution of the living legend of Elizabeth Ann Eckford. She is a personal inspiration. As I refresh my memory of her profound story, I’m reminded of how transformative true grit and perseverance is, and the importance of taking a stand against racism- a stand which is more pivotal in these recent times. I take the lessons of her story to remind myself each time of the pain that my client’s often feel – of feeling unwelcomed, undeserved and untethered.

 

Elizabeth Eckford was part of a group that became known as the Little Rock Nine. The Little Rock Nine were the first black students to attend the all-white Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

 

The first attempt to de-segregate the school was on 4 September 1957. Eckford and the 8 other black students were recruits sent to the all-white school to test Arkansas’ supposed intention to integrate its schools. It was an act of token desegregation.

 

Elizabeth did not have a telephone so she did not receive a warning call for the protests and blockade by the Arkansas National Guard that she would soon face. So Elizabeth arrived at the school alone. She was faced with an angry white mob with hardened jeering faces. The crowd shouted for her to be lynched.

 

For the rest of the school year Elizabeth and the other black students faced a systematic campaign of brutality perpetrated by white students. She reflects upon the time:

“Being body slammed into wall lockers was something that occurred every day…But these kids, I now know, were directed by an adult, organized by an adult, and they went to this woman’s house every evening after school to plan for the next day.”

 

Elizabeth continued to attend school despite the daily abuse she faced. She later went on to achieve a BA in History. She served in the US army and has had numerous occupations including history teacher and probation officer.

 

Elizabeth, like many of our clients, had to enter unchartered territory alone. Many of our clients have had to face an angry mob of their own and have experienced hostility and abuse. However, like Elizabeth they have the courage to step forward.

 

Elizabeth reflects upon the step she took, a step which is so profound for today:

“Ordinary people, when in extraordinary circumstances, can do extraordinary things. I’m an ordinary person, no different from other teenagers at that time. I’m different now because I used my voice, whereas I didn’t as a kid.” 

 

2020 has highlighted an ongoing issue of racism and in particular, anti-black agendas.  The conversation regarding racism has shone a light on many victims, many of whom have died as a result of systemic racism. But now is the time for voices to be amplified, to surface the hidden scars in the hopes of saving others.