With tears in her eyes, Joyce Elliott stood at the podium in the Latture Conference Center at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith and recounted to students the racism she encountered when integrating into a new school.
“I was a threat to the young man who was to be the valedictorian of the class I was in, because I had good grades … I had everything I needed because I had a plan,” she said. “I knew the only way I could go to college was to become the valedictorian of my class and get a full-paid scholarship to UAPB.”
“But this young man had been called in and warned about me. They told him that if he wanted to be valedictorian, he better do something about that n----- Joyce Elliott,” she continued. “Tenth graders in high school being used by adults.”
Elliott spoke to UAFS students as part of the UAFS chapter of the American Democracy Project’s Policy Lion series, a series of talks by prominent policymakers to promote civic engagement in the UAFS campus community.
In her talk, the policymaker began by discussing her upbringing in segregated Willisville, when whites and African Americans still drank from separate water fountains, and her determination at eight years of age to try for herself the white water fountain at the courthouse in Magnolia.
“I had decided that in that water fountain, there had to be something people didn’t want me to have,” she said. “I was going to do something about it.”
She waited for an opportunity when her mother was preoccupied to run to the water fountain, running toward it so quickly that her face hit the wall above the fountain, causing her to bleed. When an African American man saw her drinking from the fountain, he pulled her inside into a closet and cleaned up the blood that had run down her shirt.
“He was scared to death, because he knew I had done something gravely wrong,” she said. “[It was] my first act of civil disobedience and my first deliberate act of breaking the law. And I had, indeed, broken the law. And it was years later when I understood what [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] was talking about. ‘You have a responsibility to break unjust laws, or you do something to change them.’”
Elliott continued by discussing the segregation of her public schools, and that once they had segregated, the African Americans had been expected to return to their all-black school.
Elliott, however, had stayed at the integrated school with whites.
“I was 15. By then, Dr. King is on the rise, and I believe in what he’s saying to us. So at 15, I think, ‘This is the time that I decided to live my life fearlessly,’” she said. “I decided I’m not going to go back. Because if these adults are trying to get me to leave, there must be something here that I need to do.”
That was when she encountered the racism of school administrators warning one of the top white students in school about her.
“I was graduating from college when he came to tell me what had happened and apologized,” she said. “Are we still doing that behind closed doors? Are we still choosing to make sure we don’t live in the same neighborhoods – that we don’t go to the same places of worship? Are we still feeling better if our kids go to certain schools where there are not too many of the ‘them,’ no matter who they are?”
Elliott concluded her talk to students by imploring them to be fearless.
“Because if you don’t, we will have this same speech 100 years of now. Your peers will criticize you, your family will say you have gone off the rails. And unless someone goes off the rails we will stay on the rails,” she said.
After her talk, Elliott participated in a question-and-answer session with students moderated by UAFS media communication majors Mikalyn Reif and Coby Porter. Dr. Williams Yamkam, assistant professor of political science and chair of ADP on the UAFS campus, spoke at the event, as did Dr. Paul B. Beran, UAFS chancellor. Rep. George McGill gave introductory remarks for Elliott.