Elizabeth Eckford - One of the Little Rock Nine HARDtalk


Elizabeth Eckford - One of the Little Rock Nine

Stephen Sackur speaks to Elizabeth Eckford about her involvment in the the American civil rights movement and her role as one of the Little Rock Nine.


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Transcript


LineFromTo

Now on BBC News it's

time for HARDtalk.

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Welcome to HARDtalk.

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I'm Stephen Sackur.

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Nowadays, Arkansas, little rock, is

associated with Bill Clinton. But

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little rock has another import blaze

in American recent history. It was

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here at Little Rock Central High

School that one of the key battles

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of the civil rights era was fought.

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In September 1957, nine

African American students,

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including Elizabeth Eckford,

entered the all-white

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Little Rock Central High School

in Arkansas, thereby breaking

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the racial segregation barrier in US

schools for the first time.

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They became known as

the Little Rock Nine.

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Two years earlier the US

Supreme Court had ruled segregation

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in schools to be unconstitutional.

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Little Rock Nine one of their right

to enter Little Rock Central High

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School. Like Rosa Parks before them,

they came to embody the bravery

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behind the civil rights struggle. My

guess today is one of them.

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Elizabeth Eckford. She was just 15

in 1957 but one extraordinary

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photograph ensures that her role

will be forever remembered. Little

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Rock Central High School Little Rock

Central High

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Elizabeth Eckford, welcome to

HARDtalk and thank you very much for

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inviting me into your home. You are

very welcome. Let me begin by asking

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is something that struck me entering

your house. You have had six decades

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of people eating a path to your

door, wanting to talk to you

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because, as it happened, you played

an extraordinary role as an

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individual in the civil rights

movement in the United States. Do

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you ever sometimes wish things had

gone differently? That you did not

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have all this attention?

When I was

a child, I was very shy, I was a

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submissive child from a household

where my parents, frankly, were

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benevolent Ali oligarchs. We knew

they loved us. Two jobs to take

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care, six kids to take care of. In

this house? It does not look the

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same but it was the same.

It was not

a household that was full of

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radicalism, the beginnings of the

demand for civil rights equality and

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justice. How can it be that you, as

a shy, timid 15 it-year-old, ended

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up on that first list of black

students who were going to roll at

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the White high school?

Actually, it

almost didn't happen. I asked my

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mother during spring that we had

learned it would be desegregated. I

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called her the Queen of now, now

that she is not around at this time

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she did not say no and that was an

characteristic of my mother.

This is

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what a writer who wrote a very

interesting and long piece about you

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on the 50th anniversary of the

events at Little Rock Central High

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School. She was painfully shy

15-year-old daughter of a hyper

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protective mother who was reluctant

to challenge the racial Morais and,

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in fact, Elizabeth was the

unlikeliest child blaze of all.

Yes,

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not only because of my personality

because of my mother. In our

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household... Both parents were

always on the same page for the

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Ossetians. It took a long time to

get to yes for them and so when

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names of the 17 students who were

selected were in the newspaper, I

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told my parents that it was almost

too late, that I had to go. The

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reason I wanted to go is that I

wanted to get the best education

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possible. I had been brought up in a

working-class family but I had been

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brought up with the assumption that

I would go to college and I knew

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that, to do that, I needed to get

scholarships.

Do you think that you

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or your mum or your dad had any idea

of the scale of the opposition and

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the hate and violence that could be

started up by whites in this town?

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This was a total shock. Violence in

schools was not part of the 1950s

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and it being allowed to continue day

after day... First it was thought

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things would get better as timed to

sign and when it didn't change and

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even a few students who had made

friendly overtures to us now turned

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their backs so the only voices of

being heard were the voices of

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people who were organised to attack

us, both physically and verbally...

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Who were systematically racist.

Yes

stop the fall spending time thinking

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about the impact that had a new ones

you started Little Rock Central High

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School, lets think about the moment

that you were actually the first

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black student to appear at the high

school, September four, and because

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of a bit of a mixup over timing, the

other eight were not with you?

But I

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was not the only one who came there

independently. Terence Roberts who

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lived with him walking distance of

the school, less than ten blocks

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away, walked to the school, and

after he was turned away, he came

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and tried to encourage me to leave

with him.

The fact is, the several

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minutes, you are pretty much

isolated as EU face not just one or

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to but actually a couple of 100, at

least, white people - now some of

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them young and some of them old- who

had gathered to try to block any

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black student getting into school

that day.

Yes. That was shocking.

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What was more shocking to me was

that I had thought that a National

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Guard was there to protect all

students, including me. They were

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there to keep me out and I did not

realise that an deal I was turned

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away the third time and, even

directed to go across the street,

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where those angry voices were.

I

have been reading some of the words

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directed at you. 15 years old, Lynch

hurt, people said, they used the end

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of word. People said get out of

school, go back to where you came

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from.

And some said, they thought I

should go back... LAUGHTER.

Even

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though you were born and raised in

their town.

Some believe that I was

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somebody who had been brought here

specifically to disrupt their

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life...

To make trouble. Yes. What

innocent is made of this

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particularly remarkable for you and

lived through the ages as your

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experience was one photograph. The

picture is remarkable for lots of

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different reasons. I mean, that

dignity in your pose and the sense

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of isolation amongst all those white

faces that there is in new but of

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course the other reason it is

remarkable is because it captures

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the rage of one young woman, a

fellow student, Hazel brand, who is

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right behind you and her face is

twisted in a shout. At that time,

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were you aware of her presence and

her shouting?

For a long time, I did

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not know who she was and finally I

did learn her first name but, after

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a while, I forgot it.

The trauma you

went to the top you had to turn

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back, the National guard were not

going to let you in, the people did

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not want you in and you just had to

turn around. I just wonder why your

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parents, at that point, did not say,

enough, we cannot put Elizabeth

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through that again and we are going

to have to go back on this planet

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and put back in the black school.

My

mother had been an accommodated to

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avoid difficulty with white people.

She had grown up in Royal Arkansas

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-- rural. Their livelihood dependent

on the goodwill of white people. She

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came to Little Rock as a teenager in

order to get an education and she's

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not unique in that.

When we get to

the reality of what it was like you

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inside the school, here are some

quotations I have taken for what

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were later released papers of the

headmistress of the school. Later we

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found this, an account of the days

after you had gone into the school.

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October 28, Elizabeth shoved in the

whole weight. -- Hollway. Jostled in

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the gym. Hit with an implement.

Kicked. Elisabeth punched. Elisabeth

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shoved on the stairs. Elisabeth

knocked flat. That was your reality?

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Yes. And... A lot of horrible things

that happened were in the gym. Our

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show is did not have petitions

between people so when the water

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turned suddenly hot, very hot, I

could see that the girl on the side

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and this side had turned the water.

They had anticipated it, which

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brings to mind the many, many

bystanders who turned their backs

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and acted like they didn't hear or

see what was happening. That makes a

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person who is being attacked feel

like they think we are getting what

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we deserved and that is one thing

that encouraged encourages me to

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speak out, to let people know how

powerful they can be in someone's

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life who is being set apart and

attacked and other people are

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ignoring it. There were two students

at my school who engage me in

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ordinary conversation every day.

Why

students?

Yes to white students and

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a new debate had to have paid a

price for that. I did not know what

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until many years later, I learned

the girl who lived outside the town,

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on a farm, and her father hired

armed guards and the boy was

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supported by his parents.

The

atmosphere was toxic, really. Yes.

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And this very year you have written

a book about bullying and what

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children experience when they are

terribly bullied. I just wonder now

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that you reflect on it, you think

that, frankly, it damage due in ways

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that you have had to live with the

rest of your life?

Yes, that is

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apparent when I hear outside

noises... But most of the attacks

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were behind me and I only turned

around 1's and so I couldn't

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identify my attackers and... But

what was most important to me were

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the people who supported me and that

allowed me to tell students,

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particularly, that they can help

somebody live another day by

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engaging them in a humane way, by

acknowledging that even though they

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are different that that difference

does not mean that they would hate

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them. That is very powerful to a

person who is being hurt and

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isolated.

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the individual, is suffered so much

on what you did was part of

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something that was much bigger, that

is the struggle for civil rights and

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it was not just about the

segregating the schools, it was

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about so many other things too, but

do you think in a sense, I was

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sacrificed to a bigger, wider

movement?

It was a self-sacrifice,

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self-sacrifice. I had to make a

decision every day that I was going

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to go back into that hellhole. I

knew what I would be facing after a

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while. But... One of the Little Rock

nine was a girl who had a hole in

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the heart, years and years before

open-heart surgery was available. In

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fact, she did not have surgery until

after she had graduated from college

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and she was in a crisis. So... How

could I leave her behind?

I wonder

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if it ultimately helps you to come

back to Little Rock because after

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school, you spent quite a few years

out of this place, and I know those

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were really tough years for you.

Yes, I didn't know the full extent

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of, of my experiences. I did not

know how damaging, how damaged I

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was. But I felt like I was fortunate

to be in an environment where people

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did not know anything about my

background.

Rights, you want to just

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be out of that for a while.

Yeah.

That it was not making you happy

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because you were...

No, I had

periodic depression, serious

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depression. But, I never knew. I did

not understand why. I did not

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understand that I have post, big

stress. And they have... I did not

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start talking to students until

1990... Seven, I think.

Which is 40

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years after.

Yes. Well, for 30

years, none of this talk about what

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was like for in school. Most people

think the worst happened on the

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first day.

Yeah.

But was much more

than that.

But also brings me to ask

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you about the complicated

relationship that you developed with

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hazel Brown, who was the girl were

referred to earlier in the picture,

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Liz yelling at you with hate in her

face.

Yes, yes. The photographer who

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took that picture introduced me to

her a couple of days before the 40th

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anniversary, and... I knew that she

felt a lot of trepidation about

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going public. She had told her sons,

who were the older kid, about the

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picture that they would encounter.

-- kids. To prepare them, but I

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remember being with her family

members and I remember her daughter

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saying, that she was looking through

a book and she said that is my

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mother. She had not been prepared.

But the point is, Hazel wanted...

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She wanted... She wanted to reach

out to you.

Yes, she had called me

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in 1963, during the summer, to

apologise. But she never said what

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she was apologising for.

How do you,

what do you mean by that? You think

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that somehow she wanted you to

forgive her that she did not want to

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delve deep into... Where she was out

on what she had done?

Yes, yes, yes.

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In fact, I began to realise, we

spent two years together.

Umina

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after 97.

Yes. Gradually I began to

realise that she was not

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acknowledging the full extent of

what she had done.

-- you mean.

She

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told one reporter that life is more

than a moment and she should not be

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judged just on that moment, but also

I had acquired is three different

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videotapes of her having some

moments. -- had acquired three. She

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eventually said that she had amnesia

about the past.

Umina about other

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incidents where she was expressing

racism?

Yeah, and the parents

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removed her from Central sometime

during March, no, I am sorry, much

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earlier than that. Sometime during

October, 1957, they said for her

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safety.

I just wonder if here, there

may be some deeper sort of metaphor

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about where America is because

reconciliation is not easy.

No, it

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isn't.

You know, you have had the

congressional medal, you have had

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meetings with your Clinton and

statues erected in your honour and

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the Little Rock nine's honour, and

you have become a hugely respected

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figure because of the way you have

handled your own personal

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experience, but in the end, for

America to really come to terms with

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all of this is not about just

putting up statues and giving gold

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medal is out, it is about every

person's heart and mind changing.

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And I wonder if you feel that is

really happening.

This is my mantra.

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The only way we can have real

reconciliation is to honestly

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acknowledge our painful is not

shared past.

Let me ask you this. I

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dare say it not so very far from

this house they will be a young

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15-year-old black girl who is

currently enrolled in Central high,

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here in Little Rock. Do you believe

that her life, her opportunities,

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her experience, is going to be much

better, much easier, for sure, then

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yours or not?

I know that the

possibilities for her future art,

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will be... Better than mine were.

Because so much has changed,

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especially opportunities for women.

But... That depends upon her being

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prepared, prepared. I tell students

that it is their obligation to

0:22:010:22:06

prepare themselves for their

futures, and those who do not repair

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it will be cast aside. I do not

pretty it up, I just tell them

0:22:120:22:18

straight up they will be cast aside.

We have talked a lot about what has

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happened in the States in your long

life, and I just wonder when we

0:22:220:22:27

talked about the journey and you

express your concerns about America

0:22:270:22:31

today, EU said the journey is

nowhere near complete, in fact, we

0:22:310:22:36

are still near the beginning, but do

you have faith that ultimately, that

0:22:360:22:41

journey will lead to a place where

the races are equal, where justice

0:22:410:22:49

and equality are guaranteed for all

Americans, including black

0:22:490:22:53

Americans?

That is my hope for the

future. But it's been a long time

0:22:530:23:02

coming, and it will be... I don't

know whether I will live to see it.

0:23:020:23:12

I do not know whether I will live to

see it. But... That's my hope for

0:23:120:23:20

the future. I understand my place in

history, I am an historical

0:23:200:23:25

footnote. That is 1am, not a

celebrity. When I started talking to

0:23:250:23:30

students, I would cry during my

presentations. -- that is what I M.

0:23:300:23:39

I have worked my way to wear that

does not happen any more but I guess

0:23:390:23:45

I was doing my own exposure therapy.

-- I am. I did not even know about

0:23:450:23:53

exposure therapy until recent years.

Elizabeth Eckford, it has been a

0:23:530:23:57

real honour to talk to you and thank

you for letting me into your house

0:23:570:24:02

and thank you for being on HARDtalk.

Thank you. When I had an opportunity

0:24:020:24:05

to speak to the public, I always

remind them of how powerful their

0:24:050:24:10

voices can be in support of a person

who is being hurt.

0:24:100:24:17

In September 1957, nine African American students, including Elizabeth Eckford, entered the all-white Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, thereby breaking the racial segregation barrier in US schools for the first time. They became known as the Little Rock Nine. Two years earlier the US Supreme Court had ruled segregation in schools to be unconstitutional. The first time Elizabeth Eckford tried to enter Little Rock Central High she was turned away, and the image of her surrounded by a hostile crowd of local white people is one of the most famous photographs of the American civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s. Stephen Sackur is at her family home in Little Rock and asks if she regrets her central role in a famous chapter of recent American history.


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