OGDEN -- Elizabeth Eckford was 15 when she decided to try for a spot at a better high school, hoping her hard work might earn a college scholarship.
What Eckford, now 70, didn't expect was to be a frontline warrior in the early battle for civil rights.
Eckford, who appears in perhaps the most iconic of the Little Rock Nine news photos, will be in Ogden for speeches tonight and Thursday.
A young Eckford, eyes hidden by sunglasses, was photographed trying to retreat from a mob of students, including one white teen whose eyes were squinted in rage, her teeth bared as she taunted her victim.
"I'm a very ordinary person," Eckford said Monday in a telephone interview, "but ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances can do amazing things."
The Little Rock Nine were the first black students to attend classes at Central High in Little Rock, Ark.
The whites-only school was forced to integrate as a result of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared segregated schools unconstitutional.
About 80 black students had applied to attend Central High, but the school board used various criteria, such as below-average grades or involvement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to eliminate all candidates except nine, Eckford said.
On Sept. 4, 1957, Eckford and eight other black students made a first, unsuccessful attempt to enter the school. Their path was blocked by a mob of about 400 people and by National Guard troops under orders from Gov. Orval Faubus.
Eckford -- who arrived separate from and before the other eight students because she had no phone and never heard their final plan -- was driven back by racist jeers and threats of lynching.
"It was really difficult," she recalled. "I was shy, and my motive for going there was personal: I wanted to prepare for college.
"I was brought up with the understanding that I had to go to college, and my parents were working class, so I would have to have a scholarship.
"But when the opposition came into the school, I realized if they drove all of us away, it would be many, many years before an attempt to end segregation happened again."
The students finally were able to enter Central High on Sept. 23, surrounded by a group of black newspaper reporters who faced down about 1,000 protesters.
From Sept. 24 through the rest of the school year, the nine teens were escorted by Army troops sent by President Dwight Eisenhower. The troops had been told not to engage white students, so abuse of the Little Rock Nine was rampant.
"The principal's rule was, whatever happened, we weren't to bother teachers, we were to report it to the vice principal, but he would not act on anything unless it was confirmed by teachers," Eckford said.
She remembers being pushed down stairs often and being body-slammed against her locker almost daily. She remembers showering after a gym class when the water turned scalding.
"The white girls on either side of me turned their water off just before it happened," Eckford said. "I don't know how many students flushed toilets (to divert the cold water). I know it wasn't a prank. It was intended to hurt me."
Eckford recalled that, during an eight-period school day, no one would willingly converse with her except two students in her last-period speech class.
All Little Rock high schools were closed the following year, so Eckford did not graduate from Central. She earned her diploma through correspondence and night classes.
Eventually, she earned a history degree from Ohio's Central State University, but to this day, Eckford suffers the side effects of her teenage trauma.
"I didn't know until I was diagnosed in 1980, but I have post-traumatic stress disorder," she said.
"I didn't know why I always flinched when I heard a loud noise, or why it made me revisit feelings of the past."
Eckford will speak tonight at Weber State University and Thursday morning to students at Two Rivers High School.
Cassie Cox, a Two Rivers High English teacher and literacy coach, read about the Little Rock Nine years ago and met Eckford after winning a teachers' Little Rock Nine essay contest hosted by the National Park Service.
Cox talked Eckford into visiting Two Rivers High, and Weber State University paid for the plane ticket.
"When I read about what these nine kids had gone through, I knew it was a story my students needed to hear," Cox said. "These nine children were tortured, harassed and isolated, all because they wanted to get the best education possible.
"I hope my students will see Elizabeth's courage and that they will be touched by her story, inspired to not take education for granted and to stand up for what is right."
Eckford has the same hope.
"I stress that education is their opportunity for creating future opportunities for themselves, and if they don't invest in themselves, they will be cast aside by society," she said.
"And I would like African-American children, and all children, to see they have a future. If you understand that, you can work for that. If you don't believe you have a future, you shut yourself down."
To learn more
Elizabeth Eckford will appear at Weber State University tonight to talk about the role she played in the civil rights movement. Between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., she will take part in a reception and book signing at the Hurst Center for Lifelong Learning, where she will speak at 7 p.m. Both the reception and talk are free and open to the public.