Hero photograph
Elizabeth Eckford Talk
Photo by Otago Daily Times

Elizabeth Eckford Talk

Paul Fielding —

Anyone who studies Year 11 Black Civil Rights in History, knows intimately the story of Elizabeth Eckford and The Little Rock Nine desegregation experiment at school in Arkansas in the mid 1950’s. And here she was in little, old Dunedin in 2019!

On Wednesday August 14th our two Year 11 History classes attended an event held at Otago Girls High School to listen to Elisabeth Eckford talk about Black Civil Rights and responses to racism, prejudice and bullying in American society in the past and now. Over 700 students from all around Dunedin attended and heard Elizabeth describe her year at Little Rock High School in 1957 when she was at the forefront of social change in American Society.

On her first day of school Elizabeth became isolated from the other black students and met a mob who insulted and abused her. A picture taken that day has become one of the most famous images reflecting American society in the twentieth century. For the following year at school she and eight other black students attempted to help desegregate education in American High Schools. On a daily basis, Elizabeth faced a significant minority group of white students who were out to psychologically torment her.  She survived.

Now 77, Elizabeth has written a book about her experiences called “The Worst First Day” and she continues to travel to schools across America to help describe her experiences. She also wants students to understand the importance of resilience and tenacity while facing social injustice.

This is Elizabeth’s first visit to New Zealand and she has loved our country and believes that we as a nation seem to be coping much better with racism and inclusivity than her own homeland.

At the end of the talk students were able to ask questions directly to Elizabeth. Logan Park students ended up asking most of these questions which were perceptive and well received.

Back at school our students commented that the morning was massively worthwhile as they felt the history they had learnt was now more real to them and that it was an honour to be so close to such a famous person. They also understood the relevance to today’s issues as outlined by two other speakers especially the United States Consular-General, Katelyn Choe, who spoke inspirationally of the American vision and dream which may have diminished lately in politics but lives on in individual deeds and actions such as those done by Elizabeth Eckford and activists for social justice and change today.

Luckily we were seated right up the front of the hall and the ODT photo shows us clapping in sign language as Elizabeth is sensitive to loud noises.