A woman who helped desegregate the Little Rock, Ark., school district with the “Little Rock Nine” in the 1950s delivered a straightforward message for Monroe high school students Wednesday morning.
“The point of my story is teenagers taking seriously their social responsibility,” said Minnijean Brown Trickey. “If you identify a wrong, you have to change it. You can’t let things stay the way they are.”
She addressed Monroe High and Central Academy of Technology and Arts students. Here’s a look at her talk and the events that inspired it:
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In September 1957, the nation watched as Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus deployed the National Guard to block nine African-American teens, including Brown Trickey, from entering Central High in Little Rock.
President Dwight Eiseinhower soon ordered federal troops to escort the nine to the previously all-white school – the first major test of the federal government’s ability to enforce the desegregation ruling that the Supreme Court handed down three years earlier in Brown v. Board of Education.
On Sept. 25, 1957, Army soldiers with fixed bayonets escorted the nine to school past a hostile crowd screaming racial epithets. A black journalist was clubbed with a brick. People pushed toward barricades as helicopters circled overhead.
Despite the presence of soldiers, and later National Guard members, the nine faced constant harassment. Brown Trickey called it terror, not harassment.
She recalled the boys’ hard-toe shoes that kicked her. She was bruised every day. Teachers did little to help. Hallway shoves came so often that the black students walked near the lockers so they didn’t have as far to go when they got slammed into them. Someone put broken glass on the girls locker room floor, then somehow filled the room with steam.
They called Brown Trickey the N-word. They told her to go back to Africa. “Excuse me? You go back to wherever the hell you came from,” she said. “I felt sorry for them.”
So why stay?
Brown Trickey called Little Rock “the definitive bullying story.”
“I was not grateful to be at Central. It was my right,” she said. “And I was taking my right.”
“They hurt me every day ... but I kept going.”
A Charlotte inspiration
Brown Trickey drew inspiration in early September 1957 from a picture of Dorothy Counts, the first black student at Harding High. “If she can do it, I can do it,” Brown Trickey thought. She urged students to know their history.
The silent ones
In a school of 2,000, there were quite a number of troublemakers at Central, Brown Trickey said. But there were plenty more who simply remained silent despite the mistreatment of black students, and Brown Trickey was very disappointed in them as well.
A nasty call
The harassment was not limited to school. Someone phoned Brown Trickey’s mother and said a girl fitting her daughter’s description was in the morgue, and could she come down and identify her.
The chili incident
In the cafeteria one December day in 1957, Brown Trickey carried a tray with chili on it. People were kicking chairs at her, as usual. Her tray fell, and the chili a white boy “accidentally on purpose,” she said. She was suspended and later expelled. No one talks about the three times someone dumped soup on her. Years later, the boy apologized to her on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” Brown Trickey even returned to the school for a chili cook-off for charity.
From Ark. to Capetown
What happened to the Little Rock Nine is taught in classrooms as far away as South Africa, Brown Trickey said, as a way to show students what American apartheid was like.
President Bill Clinton, himself a former Arkansas governor, presented the Little Rock Nine with a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. Brown Trickey worked for Clinton as deputy assistant secretary for workforce diversity in the Department of the Interior, according to the Little Rock Nine Foundation.
The civil rights movement did not just help African-Americans, Brown Trickey said. It helped everyone. “Sometimes you do stuff and guess what? It makes history.”
Role of nonviolence
Brown Trickey called her experience at Central the ultimate in nonviolence: “Don’t get mad. Just get up and go” to school. And by doing so, you just might change history for the good.