A fictionalized retelling based on Elizabeth Eckford's efforts to desegregate American schools and her walk to Little Rock Central High School. (90% fiction, 10% fact)
September 3, 1957 - Elizabeth
“Are you sure you want to do this, honey?” Elizabeth’s mother asked, reaching across the dinner table to take her daughter’s hand in her own.
“I’m sure, Mom.” It must have been the fifth time this meal alone that she had said that, and Elizabeth tried to keep the irritation out of her voice. It was as though her mother thought if she asked enough times, Elizabeth's answer would change.
“Oscar, what do you think?” Her mother’s eyes flitted back and forth between Elizabeth and her husband, looking for support.
Her father looked up from his newspaper, a pensive expression on his face. He folded the paper up slowly, perhaps stalling for time to collect his thoughts.
“I think that I’m proud Elizabeth is doing this,” he said slowly. “It has to be done. But I won’t lie. It isn’t going to be easy.” He shook his head at his daughter. “They aren’t going to have open arms when you come walking up to that school. Are you ready for them to scream at you? Throw things at you? Tell you that you don’t belong?”
Elizabeth looked down, pushing her peas around her plate. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t heard before, and she had already made up her mind. Being one of the Little Rock Nine was something she needed to do.
“Look at me, girl.”
Elizabeth met her father’s eyes. There was an intensity she had rarely seen before in his expression, and also naked pain. The years had not been kind to her father. As he was fond of telling people, he didn’t just work seven days a week; he worked nine. The hands folded up next to the newspaper reflected that toil: dry and sandpaper like.
“It doesn’t have to be you,” he murmured plaintively. “If you think it’s too much, you can walk away from it all. They aren’t ever going to be kind to you at that school. I know it. You know it. There’s still time to change your mind.”
“I can do it, Dad. It isn't just me I'm doing it for. It's for the other girls in my year who were too worried or too afraid to volunteer. They shouldn't be afraid to go to a white school. Besides, how else am I going to become a lawyer?" She smiled at that, but the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. "I’ve thought about this for a long time. It’s what I want.”
“C’mon, baby,” her mother said. “Finish up your vegetables, and let’s go lay out that dress you made for tomorrow.”
Elizabeth put her plate by the sink, and followed her mother to her room.
“You did such beautiful stitching,” her mother said softly, running her hand over the gingham hemline. “Such a pretty dress for my beautiful girl.” Her mother put her hand to her mouth, and sniffled.
“Momma, what’s wrong?” Elizabeth asked hesitantly. Her mother was not a woman who cried easily. The sudden flood of emotion seemed jarring, foreign.
“I’m just so scared for you, baby,” her mother cried, pulling Elizabeth into a desperate hug. Her wiry arms felt like steel bands, locking around Elizabeth like a steel trap.
Elizabeth hugged her mother back. “It’ll be okay. It’s all planned out. I’ll be safe, Momma.”
Her mother drew back sharply, still holding tight onto Elizabeth’s arms. Elizabeth found herself idly wondering if there would be bruises there tomorrow, her mother’s grip was so fierce. In that stare, her mother looked much older, much frailer. “But at what cost?” Her grip stayed just as firm, but her eyes took on a vacant, stricken look. “Did I ever tell you about the lynching I saw, back in ’27?”
Elizabeth shook her head.
“A mob of them chased that man down …” her voice wavered, before she regained her composure. “They chased him down and manhandled him over to a tree. I can still hear him, screaming "You have the wrong man! I didn't do nothing!" Not that they cared. They strung him up. I’ll never forget the look on his face, but what was almost worse was the look on their faces. Like animals, or devils, so gleeful in that poor man’s misery. Screaming and hooting, calling to lynch him. It was like they had no souls in their bodies. Just monsters. That was the day I met Jim Crow, and I imagine you’re going to meet him tomorrow.”
At this, Elizabeth wrapped her arms around her mother again, resting her head on her mother’s chest. Through her mother's cotton dress, she could hear the jackhammering tempo of a fully fledged panic attack. Silently, she prayed that her mother would stop worrying.
“I have half a mind to call the whole thing off,” her mother stated weakly, then fell silent again until gradually, her heartbeat slowed and calmed to a regular rhythm. “It’s bad for my nerves.”
“They can’t stop me from going, Momma. And neither can you. I’m going to make something of myself. They might scare me, but not half as bad as the idea that I’ll never have a real future.”
They stayed in that position for a long time, until Elizabeth whispered, “I should really get to sleep. I don’t want to miss my bus tomorrow.”
“Alright baby. Sleep tight.” She kissed Elizabeth’s forehead, and walked over to the doorway. Leaning in it, the light from the hall silhouetted her figure, brought out the tired stope in her back and the curlicues of her hair. “I’m so proud of you. Even if I am scared half to death for you.”
“Thank you, Momma. Goodnight. I love you.”
“Love you too.’
For a long time, Elizabeth lay awake, staring at the gingham pattern of her dress. Sleep eluded her, and by the time sunlight streamed into her bedroom window, she hadn’t slept a wink.
* * * *
September 4, 1957 - Linda Miller
Linda raced up the stairs, laughing gleefully as her mother tried to catch her. A smear of strawberry jam covered her cheek, and her mother’s hand grabbed for the back of her shirt, fingertips skimming the fabric but just missing. Linda ran into the bathroom and tried to close the door, but her mother’s shoe was in the way.
“Linda,” her mother said sternly. “We do not play around doors. Do you understand me? You could get hurt.”
“No,” Linda giggled, but she let her mother pick her up and hoist her onto the counter by the sink. With a wet wipe, her mother gently dabbed the jam off her face.
“There, good as new,” her mother smiled down at her. “Now, we have to get you dressed so that we can go down to the school!”
“School, school!” Linda cheered. She had recently started kindergarten, and the thought of playing with all the blocks and toys and her new friends made her grin widely.
“That’s right, off to school. We have to stop those blacks from getting in to our schools,” she cooed to Linda. Linda fidgeted and wriggled to be let down on the floor. Her mother lifted her down carefully, then led her into her bedroom.
Quickly and efficiently, her mother dressed her and put on her shoes, patient even when Linda attempted to throw a shoe under her bed. “No, no, no, darling. We can’t be late.” As a final touch, she put a sunhat on her daughter’s head, and grabbed her purse. “Let’s go.”
The car ride to the school went quickly, and Linda watched the clouds in the sky with wide eyes. One of them looked just like the puppy she wanted for her birthday, and she spent a few minutes begging and pleading with her mother for a pet before the crowd distracted her. They were being very loud, louder than Linda was allowed to be even when she was outside, and they were shouting out numbers.
“Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate!”
Her mother parked the car, and straightened her skirt before opening Linda’s door, helping her step down onto the street. Clamping Linda’s hand firmly in her own, she briskly walked up to a woman in a pink dress with a white purse.
“Did we make it on time, Shelly? Have they shown up yet?” Linda’s mother asked.
“That must be one of them there,” Shelly said, pointing.
A black girl was getting off the bus, wearing a white and gingham dress. Linda stared at her, wondering who she could be. Was it someone Mommy knew? Maybe, but she had never seen her before. Whoever she was, she was pretty.
“What’ll they let into the school next, monkeys?” Her mother said shrilly. Her hold on Linda’s hand became much tighter, and Linda whimpered in pain.
“Mommy, you’re hurting me,” she complained.
“Sorry, darling. Mommy is just so mad.” She knelt down, so that she could talk up close to Linda. “Do you see that black girl? The one right over there?”
Linda nodded, forgetting her stinging hand.
“She is trying to get into our schools, where she shouldn’t be. You see, the blacks have their own schools. And we have ours. That’s just how it should be. But this one,” and at this, her Mommy glared venomously at the girl, “thinks she belongs in our schools.”
The crowd got louder, chanting and screaming: “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate!!”
“Lynch her! Lynch her!”
Mommy straightened up, reaching for Linda’s hand again. “Do you think you can count with us, Linda?”
“Two … Three?” she tried.
“No baby, two, four, six, eight. You can do it, I know you can.”
Linda tried again, and this time she got the words right. Her mommy smiled down at her and told her she was being a good girl, so she said them again. She got a little louder this time, feeling more confident. It must be some kind of game the crowd was playing.
The girl was walking closer now, and the crowd pressed in on her. People screamed in her face, and still she walked on, unflinching and determined.
“Go back to Africa,” someone jeered loudly, and Linda perked up. She had heard of Africa! Her kindergarten teacher had said that word before. Was this girl from Africa? She didn’t really know what an Africa was, but it sounded like something interesting. Mrs. Applebaum said that all the blacks had come from Africa, although she never really explained why that was.
Linda tugged on her mother’s hand, wanting to get closer, but Mommy was still talking to Shelly. “It’s an abomination, that’s what it is. How is that girl ever going to learn? They’re not smart enough for our schools, we all know that.”
“Mommy,” Linda whined, tugging on her mother’s hand. “I want to get closer.” The girl was walking away, the crowd drawn magnetically after her.
“Fine, Linda. Just a bit closer.”
She took off running, tugging and pulling Mommy all the way up to the girl until that they were standing in front of her. The girl paused, looking down at them behind her sunglasses.
“TWO, FOUR, SIX, EIGHT, WE DON’T WANT TO INTEGRATE,” Linda yelled proudly in the girl’s face. She thought she saw the girl frown. Or maybe it wasn't a frown, but she looked sad. Before Linda could do anything else, her mother spit in the girl’s face.
“Go back to your own country,” her mommy snarled at the girl. Linda had never hear Mommy talk like that before, not even when she had drawn on the walls in crayon or eaten all of Mommy’s chocolate pudding before the guests had come over.
Linda held her breath, wondering what would happen, but the girl only wiped her cheek, looked sadly at them, and kept walking.
The chanting faded as the girl walked away, though Linda could still hear the calling when she strained her ears.
"That'll show her," Mommy trumpeted, a smug look on her face. She rummaged around in her purse until she found a hand mirror, and checked her lipstick in the reflection before shutting it with a decisive click.
“What a good girl you are,” Shelly said to Linda, patting her on the head.
“Isn’t she?” Mommy said. “I think she deserves some ice cream!”
“Ice cream, ice cream!” Linda cheered, and her mother led her back to the car. Linda wondered whether she would get sprinkles on her ice cream.
“You did such a good job, Linda,” Mommy said as she swung her up into the car. “With any luck, you’ll never have to go to school with a beast like that.”