A living piece of American history shared her plight as a black student during the Civil Rights Movement in a presentation for Central Academy of Technology and Arts and Monroe High School students on Feb. 4.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey was a member of the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine black students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. During the presentation, she discussed her experiences as a high school student and what students can learn from her experience today.
Students watched a PBS segment about the Little Rock Nine and a reunion special of the group and their Caucasian classmates on “Oprah,” but Brown-Trickey felt the videos only gave the “surface of the story.”
Brown-Trickey shared memories of the violent acts against her and the other eight black students in the school that she called “a daily occurrence,” including being slammed into lockers, stepping on glass in the showers and being kicked. Residents in the town protested against the nine attending school and they regularly experienced death threats.
On the first day of school that year, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus sent the Arkansas National Guard to physically block the students from coming in, which led U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send in the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students.
“Who do you have to be to be mad that nine children will go to school?” Brown-Trickey asked.
However, the Little Rock Nine member said she felt safest at school, despite the torture she endured, because she felt she couldn’t go anywhere in the town due to the townspeople’s hatred toward blacks.
She felt she had a moral and social responsibility to desegregate the school during the Civil Rights movement as a testament to her capability and courage. She and the other eight felt it was their right to be able to have the same treatment as everyone else, and despite the pain she endured, she continued to attend the school.
“It’s a beautiful story in all its horror,” Brown-Trickey said. “We were brainwashed to believe that we had ‘justice for all,’ but we really didn’t. I still believed though – even at the worst moments.
“I don’t want anyone’s heart to be broken like that. That’s why I do this. That’s why I work with children.”
Brown-Trickey emphasized today’s society reflects some of the despondence of the past.
“Today, children continue to bully one another, schools emphasize anti-bullying campaigns and society shows animosity toward specific groups, such as immigrants,” she said. She hopes today’s students become the change in the world that she wishes to see with an emphasis of tolerance.
“In the other part of the world, in Egypt, we’re so excited by the protests and uprisings, but here (in America), when we have people demonstrate, we turn on them and say ‘We don’t like it,’” Brown-Trickey said. “We’re supposed to be the democratic society. We love it when other people in other parts of the world do stuff, but when they do it here, we call it a riot or we call it something else. So our language is poison. How we describe things is poison.”
She feels that people need to understand the Civil Rights Movement helped all people – not simply black people – because it encouraged a mindset of tolerance and justice.
“Blacks have done more to bring democracy to this country,” she added.
She also urged students not to stand silently when they witness intolerances in the world.
“People would see things happening, but they would turn away or they would laugh,” Brown-Trickey said.
She quoted Elie Wiesel, a Holocuast survivor and author of “Night,” who said, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Brown-Trickey hopes students never become silent at the cost of other’s suffering.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Brown-Trickey said. “I find it funny that people tend to do things not in their best interest. That’s kind of scary to me.”
Brown-Trickey continues to share her story with students because she hopes to instill a message of self-reliance.
“Don’t let other people tell you what to think. Never before have we had more access to information and it’s really so easy. What I thought about the kids at Central was that they weren’t making their own decisions – they were being told by their parents how to be. They might have wanted to be something else, but we (today) have to be that something else that we want to be.
“I’m not asking for mutiny or going against your parents, but, in some ways, you have to because my ideas are so old, they may be out of fashion. I want my kids, my personal children, to challenge me. It’s really important to be challenged because (children) are seeking their way in the world.”