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Elizabeth Eckford Recalls Her Long Walk Into Little Rock History

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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.

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