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This 60th-school year anniversary of the 1957-58 desegregation of Little Rock Central High is ending this month with the construction of the Elizabeth Eckford Commemorative Bench.

The plans for the replica of the bus-stop bench -- which had served on Sept. 4, 1957, as a refuge of sorts for Little Rock Nine member Eckford who was barred by soldiers from the school -- were celebrated Thursday at the 16th and Park streets site where it is to be installed.

The bench is a project of the Central High Memory Project student team, the Little Rock National Historic Site and multiple other partners, including Rotary Clubs from across the country that have donated toward the cost.

Eckford, now 76 and a longtime Little Rock resident, expressed pride and appreciation for the student planners of the bench and all of their school and community backers.

"Thank you so much for your support," Eckford told the crowd gathered across the street and southeast of the landmark high school. "And I look forward to being able to sit on the bench again."

Eckford was one of nine black students who desegregated Central High in the 1957-58 school year. She arrived for her first day of school by herself on Sept. 4 and was repeatedly blocked by soldiers from entering the school while an angry crowd shouted in protest of black students attending the school.

Unable to enter Central that day, Eckford headed for the corner bus stop. Members of the crowd followed her. The newspaper photos of a stoic Eckford walking to the bench while protesters are shown shouting at her from behind are considered to be among the most iconic photos from U.S. civil-rights history.

LaVerne Bell-Tolliver, pastor of Bullock Temple CME Church on whose property the bench will sit, on Thursday described the location as the "corner of faith, hope and history."

She said it is fitting to mark the location with the physical symbol of a bus bench that recognizes the trauma Eckford endured but also celebrates the triumph of Eckford and the other eight students who remained committed to defeat segregation.

"The thought of the bench also reminds me of the courage that it took for Ms. Eckford to sit on it and wait for salvation to come in the form of a bus," she said.

George West, a former Central High teacher and longtime sponsor of the Memory Project student team with Central High media specialist Stella Cameron, told the people in the crowd that they were standing on sacred ground.

West, now education coordinator for the Central Arkansas Library System's Butler Center on Arkansas Studies, started the Memory Project 12 years ago. Since then the student groups have used their recordings of stories from friends and family members to produce two books, poetry, a website, dialogue workshop, a readers theater and an audio living history all on civil and human rights.

West and other speakers Thursday thanked Eckford and others of the Little Rock Nine for their bravery and for Eckford sharing her story in subsequent years.

U.S. Park Service ranger David Kilton, whose daughter is part of the Memory Project, said the unveiling of the bench -- being built of concrete and wood in the Central High boiler room -- is to be Sept. 4.

"This story is so important. It applies to our lives every day," Kilton said. "It often overwhelms me," he said. "Am I doing my best? Am I helping to make this story what it needs to be?"

Adaja Cooper and Morgan Hibbard are Central High juniors who took the lead on the project. Cooper said the project is dedicated to Eckford and the Little Rock Nine and others who persevered in their efforts for civil and human rights.

"Your acts of courage and strength .... have inspired us to take the next step in the long walk toward full and equal civil rights for all Americans," Cooper and Hibbard said in unison to Eckford.

Other speakers Thursday were Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore; community activist Sanford Tollette; Central Arkansas Library Systems executive director Nate Coulter; Kenny Gibbs, president-elect of the Little Rock Rotary Club 99; and Pam Brown Courtney, who is spearheading efforts to renovate the former Ponders store that is across 16th Street from the bench location.

Partners in the project are Bullock Temple CME Church, Central High and the Central High Environmental and Spatial Technology Lab, the Little Rock School District, the Central Arkansas Library System's Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Good Earth Garden Center, Friends of Central High Museum Inc., Home Depot, Little Rock Club 99 and other Rotary International Clubs, Pam Brown Courtney and Willis Courtney, the University of Arkansas Clinton School for Public Service and Unity in the Community.

Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School, said the cost of the project is $25,000, a financial goal that has not yet been reached.

The bench project caps an event-studded year commemorating the desegregation of the school.

A program honoring the Little Rock Nine took place Sept. 25 at the school. The eight living members of the Little Rock Nine and former President Bill Clinton were among the speakers at the event that attracted students and city, state and national dignitaries.

Also marking the anniversary year was the installation on the school grounds of United, a sculpture by Clay Enoch. The work's allegorical figures are raising their arms to interlock the rings they hold in the effort to unite. Incomplete rings denote the fact that there is still progress to be made.

Other commemorations included the Arkansas Arts Center exhibit of 1957-59 photographs related to school desegregation, a fundraising concert, an educational forum and an interfaith religious service.

Metro on 05/18/2018

Print Headline: Bench to be reminder of frightened girl's wait in 1957

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