MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Many people know the turmoil that ensued when nine black students integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. But few have probably heard of Dorothy Counts-Scoggin. She integrated her high school in Charlotte, N.C., the same year, and her life was threatened. Now, students at her old campus unveiled the first permanent plaque to honor her. From member station WFAE, Gwendolyn Glenn has this report.
GWENDOLYN GLENN, BYLINE: Students and school staff lined the block waving signs welcoming 77-year-old Dorothy Counts-Scoggin back to the former site of Harding High School.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Chanting) Dorothy. Dorothy. Dorothy.
GLENN: Flanked by the fifth-grade girls who organized the celebration, Counts-Scoggins looked straight ahead as she recreated the historic walk she took in 1957 to integrate Harding when she was 15. This time there were no hecklers calling her the N-word, no people spitting on her or throwing rocks - only cheers.
GLENN: She often reflects on that day in 1957.
DOROTHY COUNTS-SCOGGINS: That morning before I left home, my father said to me, remember who you are. Remember you are inferior to no one. And remember that you can do anything you want to do and to hold your head up high.
GLENN: Counts-Scoggins says she focused on those words as she walked past the jeering crowd. An award-winning photograph of that moment was printed in publications worldwide and helped fuel the civil rights movement. Counts-Scoggins' stay at Harding was short - only two weeks.
COUNTS-SCOGGINS: My father called the superintendent. He called the police department. And they said, we cannot guarantee her safety. And my dad said, it's not worth it.
GLENN: But civil rights attorney James Ferguson, who litigated numerous school desegregation cases in North Carolina, says Counts-Scoggins' integration of Harding had far-reaching implications.
JAMES FERGUSON: Because the Brown decision, which had been issued in 1954, had had very little implementation anywhere in the nation until 1957.
GLENN: That Supreme Court decision declared segregated schools unconstitutional. In North Carolina, like most states, officials basically ignored it. Ferguson says Counts-Scoggins actions spurred other blacks to organize protest marches and demand more from school officials.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Counts-Scoggins' story is well-known by the students who welcomed her to the former Harding site.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Dorothy Counts is the first black woman that went to this school.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: When she first came to the school, she did not have a warm welcome. All the white people were spitting on her and...
GLENN: They took pride, giving Counts-Scoggins the welcome she did not have in 1957. They also unveiled a bench at the school with a plaque honoring Counts-Scoggins, the first permanent fixture to commemorate her in Charlotte. Student organizer Morgan Winston (ph).
MORGAN WINSTON: It is because of her courage that I can now walk through the front door of her own academic center because it is no longer segregated.
GLENN: Not by law, but after Charlotte schools were released from court-ordered busing in 1999, new student assignments resulted in most schools being segregated by race and income. This pains Counts-Scoggins.
COUNTS-SCOGGINS: Harding was a school of excellence in Charlotte at one time, but now basically it's non-white. So when that happens, then it becomes a forgotten school. I think a lot of black schools in Charlotte at that way. You know, they need repairs. You know, the books remind me, when I was in school, that you got those books from somebody else. How are you going to be successful?
GLENN: Counts-Scoggins now works as a consultant at a daycare center in a low-income neighborhood. She speaks around the country to advocate for better schools for all students.
COUNTS-SCOGGINS: That was my calling - didn't know it then, but I did promise then that what happened to me would happen to another child. So everything I've ever done has been around making sure that children have equality in their lives.
GLENN: Counts-Scoggins says that 1957 experience is a part of her that made her the person she is today. For NPR News, I'm Gwendolyn Glenn in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.