Step By Step


How can someone hate you simply because your skin tone is different? Is it a form of abuse to intentionally harm a child’s mental health by exposing an innocent creation to such irrational teachings?

In the midst of societal systems that perpetrate racial and gender inequity are populations of people determined to reach their full potential. They are persevering in spite of the unrelenting negative messaging hurled at them. They are overcoming barriers premeditatedly constructed to restrict their advancement.

Meet Elizabeth Eckford. Eckford is one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African Americans who were the first to attend classes at the previously segregated Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

When she was 15 years old, Eckford aspired to become an attorney and was deemed “fit” to integrate Little Rock Central High School after the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision of Brown vs. Board of Education.

Can you imagine walking through an apoplectic mob of about 400 people who vigorously and unapologetically express their disapproval of your very essence simply because you have darker skin?

Eckford, as a child, faced this threat head-on. Step by step, she courageously walked through as a minority of one.  Because her family did not own a telephone, she was not informed about the plan to meet the other eight black students before proceeding to enter the school as a group.

Scared but not deterred, Eckford walked through the venomous glares, words and behaviors.  Step by step, she maneuvered through—alone—determined to receive a better education only to be denied entry.  Her experience was documented in a snapshot taken by Johnny Jenkins on the morning of September 4, 1957.  It gained international attention.

Are the crowds that you walk through on a daily basis much different than what Eckford faced in 1957?  People may not chant racist language as you pass or blatantly threaten to lynch you, but have you noticed the covert barriers you face that are of the same or similar force?  Are you purposeful in overcoming them—even when placed in circumstances when you are there alone?

Interestingly, in 1957 Arkansas was considered a racially open-minded southern state. In addition, Little Rock was considered one of the most progressive cities in the region. As shown in Jenkins’ photograph, underneath its commercialized southern hospitality lived deep Jim Crow sentiments.

“Progress” seemingly means different things to different people.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower took control of the Arkansas National Guard from Arkansas’ governor and sent soldiers to accompany the students to school for protection.

Although the soldiers were deployed at the school for the entire school year, they were unable to prevent the continuous incidents of violence against The Little Rock Nine. The documented reports of the racially-based harassment Eckford withstood would entice anyone to understandably quit, but she did not.  Step by step, she endured.

Interestingly, the following year all of the city’s high schools were closed. The “progression” that Little Rock was known for seemed to morph into regression.

Eckford’s experience reminds us that we must remain steadfast in our walk and unmovable in our ways if we want to truly advance our position to obtain equity in the world.  Step by step, we must go forth.

Keisha Bell is an attorney, author, and public servant.

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