American Portraits

Elizabeth Eckford, the Little Rock Nine, and Purpose

In this lesson, students will learn about Elizabeth Eckford and the sense of purpose that drove the Little Rock Nine. They will explore how the perseverance of Eckford and the other minority students helped advance freedom and equality as well as learn how dedication to their own purposes also benefits society.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Equal Protection image

Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

Equality image

Equality

Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Federalism image

Federalism

The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Majority Rule / Minority Rights image

Majority Rule / Minority Rights

Laws may be made with the consent of the majority but only to the point where they do not infringe on the inalienable rights of the minority.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Narrative

The morning of September 3, 1957, was an extremely tense time for fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford. The first day of school should have been an exciting moment for the young woman, who was picking out her favorite dress to wear and hoping that she might make friends at her new school. However, Eckford was one of the Little Rock Nine, a small group of black students who had volunteered to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. She anxiously awaited with the other African-American students and their families to hear if they would be allowed to go to school. Finally, they complied with the school boards wish that they stay away and try the next day. Eckford would have a fretful night of sleep as whites who opposed integration drove by her home at night honking horns and yelling racial slurs. One of the Little Rock Nine had had a rock thrown through her window a few nights before with a note that read, “Stone this time. Dynamite next.”…

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How does Elizabeth Eckford’s courageous perseverance in the face of incredible adversity help us understand purpose in our own lives?

Virtue Defined

Purpose is my answer to the question “why do I exist?” It is the reason for which I exist; it is my goal, that thing to which my actions are directed. It is our answer to the question “what are you for?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about Elizabeth Eckford and the sense of purpose that drove the Little Rock Nine. They will explore how the perseverance of Eckford and the other minority students helped advance freedom and equality as well as learn how dedication to their own purposes also benefits society.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Elizabeth Eckford’s performance during the fight over segregation in Little Rock.
  • Students will understand how they can pursue their purpose in their own lives
  • Students will apply this knowledge to pursue purpose in their own lives.

Background

In the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Court declared that segregated schools were “inherently unequal” and unconstitutional. Moreover, it declared that schools would have to desegregate with “all deliberate speed.” Nevertheless, many white southerners pledged to resist the Court and preserve segregated schools.

In January 1956, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus asserted that since a poll demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of whites in Arkansas opposed integration, he would not “be a party to any attempt to force acceptance of change.” When nine young African American people called “The Little Rock Nine” registered for Central High in the capital of Little Rock, Governor Faubus mobilized the National Guard under the auspices of preserving the peace. In reality, the troops were to keep the black students out.

Faubus lobbied the federal government’s Justice Department and sought injunctions in court to block integration. At first, President Dwight Eisenhower and his administration attempted to persuade the governor to allow desegregation, but became more forceful as they encountered continued resistance. When Faubus proved intransigent, President Eisenhower reluctantly federalized the state’s National Guard and sent in troops to protect the Little Rock Nine.

Eight of the nine black students finished the year. Faubus closed the Little Rock public schools the following year to prevent continued integration. Nevertheless, the schools re-opened in 1959 and were integrated. Faubus could not stop the quest for equality and justice. The strength of purpose in the characters of young people like Elizabeth Eckford, who would not be diverted in their stand to earn the right to an equal education, ultimately prevailed.

Vocabulary

  • Segregation
  • National guard
  • Injunction
  • NAACP
  • Menace
  • Lynch
  • Plight
  • Bolster

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who were Elizabeth Eckford and the Little Rock Nine?
  • What was Elizabeth’s role in the Civil Rights Movement?
  • How did Elizabeth’s actions demonstrate her care for others? How did her actions help protect the rights of others?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965.  New York: Penguin, 2013.
  • BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION (I),” The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1950-1959/1952/1952_1.

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