Elizabeth Eckford, one of nine students who integrated Little Rock's Central High School in 1957, was honored Thursday both for the courage she showed decades ago and her continued efforts to speak truth to power, community members said.
Eckford is the fifth recipient of the Community Truth Teller Award from the Arkansas Community Institute, which funds Arkansas Community Organizations, a grassroots group based in Little Rock that works to support renter's rights, health care and justice for low-income people.
At a reception in her honor, she said it had become easier for her to speak about the trauma she experienced that school year, both from a mob protesting the school's desegregation and classmates who continuously bullied her.
"After many years of trying, I have arrived at a point where I don't cry anymore, where I can inject some humor," Eckford said.
Neil Sealy, executive director of Arkansas Community Organizations, said the group was impressed by Eckford's remarks at events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Central High School integration over the past year.
Sealy said the award went to Eckford for her bravery decades ago as well as her continued work to raise awareness about injustice and push for more progress.
"We still have a ways to go," Sealy said.
Sybil Hampton, the former president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the first black student to attend Central High School for three years and graduate, introduced Eckford at the event, calling her "an incredible American."
"In these times, we have people saying, explicitly or implicitly, 'whose America is this?' or 'who is an American?" Hampton said. "This America belongs to people who perhaps have not been wanted but stake their claim."
Adaja Cooper, a Central High student and a member of the Central High Memory Project student team, presented Eckford with the award. Cooper spearheaded an effort to re-create a bench at 16th and Park streets where Eckford sought shelter from the mob when she tried to enter the school for the first time.
George West, a former Central High teacher and a longtime sponsor of the Memory Project student team with Central High media specialist Stella Cameron, noted the value of students hearing stories from the civil rights movement from people who had experienced it, an effort Eckford had contributed to. Cameron said Eckford had served as a "primary source" for students to learn from.
Eckford said her main audience nowadays is young people. In her remarks, she urged attendees to reach out to people experiencing injustice.
"I'm asking that you not walk away, not turn your backs when you see evil being done, not defend anybody because that can be dangerous, but reach out to someone, because that can help them live another day," she said.
Metro on 11/16/2018