When Minnijean Brown-Trickey looks back at old pictures of 4 September 1957, she remembers the day her courage kicked in. “I look at the photos of the nine of us, standing there, in contrast to those crazy people,” she says. “And what I say is that they threw away their dignity and it landed on us.”
Brown-Trickey, now 79, was one of the Little Rock Nine, the first group of African American children to go to the city’s Central high school in September 1957 – and in doing so, desegregate it. On the teenagers’ first day at the Arkansas school, white residents were so furious they amassed in a 1,000-strong mob at the gates. In preparation, eight of the teenagers had been instructed by Daisy Bates, the leader of the Arkansas National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to meet at her house, so they could travel to the school in a group. But one of the nine, Elizabeth Eckford, had no telephone and so was not told of the safety plan. Instead she was forced to run the gauntlet of the mob’s hatred alone. The pictures of the young girl encountering the baying crowd is the enduring image of that day for many. But to Brown-Trickey, despite its power, it cannot completely capture all nine children’s fear. “Still photos cannot show how we are shaking in our boots, sandwiched between the Arkansas National Guard and a mob of crazy white people,” she says.
As they tried to walk into school, the children were subject to verbal abuse, spat on and denied admission. Three black journalists watching were also attacked. One, L Alex Wilson, was hit on the head with a brick, developed a nervous condition and died three years later aged only 51.
It took a further three weeks for the students to actually step inside the building, thanks to fierce resistance from the Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who used the mob as a pretext for barring the nine, putting the state’s National Guard in their way. Brown-Trickey recalls how he warned of “blood in the streets” should the children be allowed to go to school.
Eventually the deadlock was broken by President Eisenhower, who sent in 1,200 troops from the army’s elite 101st Airborne division to take control. They dispersed the crowd and quelled the general unrest in Little Rock that had left black citizens afraid to go out after dark. The army unit then met the students at Bates’ house every day to escort them into the building, and throughout the day each of the nine would have an armed guard between classes.
It is estimated that this cost $3.4m in 1957, three times what it had cost to build the actual school. At the time, Brown-Trickey found it bewildering. Yet it was only the latest front in the battle over school integration. A landmark supreme court ruling, Brown v the Board of Education, had legally mandated desegregation in US schools in 1954, after the NAACP had brought a class action lawsuit with the family of Linda Brown, a student in Topeka, Kansas, who was prevented from enrolling in an all-white school. Smaller schools in rural districts in Arkansas integrated, but the pace of change was slow and southern states not only dragged their feet but went to extraordinary lengths in their resistance.
The Jim Crow laws in the south enforced strict racial apartheid, with segregated schools a key feature. Because white schools had resources poured into them, integration became a rallying cry in the struggle for civil rights. But many white parents were passionately keen not to “pollute” the education of their children with African Americans, whom they saw as inferior. The year after Brown-Trickey started at Central high, the governor held a referendum in which 72% of the Little Rock voting public chose to close all public high schools rather than continue with integration, a crisis that took a year – and a series of legal victories by the NAACP – to resolve.
Sometimes courage is not courage, it’s just being pissed off: ‘I’m not gonna let you scare me like this. I will be back'
When Brown-Trickey first saw Central high, it was known as “the most beautiful high school in America”, set on a sprawling campus and home to almost 2,000 students. Unlike schools for African Americans, it was well equipped with labs, a gym and stadium. Yet Brown-Trickey did not think black schools were inferior. “Our black teachers were more educated than the white teachers,” she says. “Our principal had PhDs and we had teachers with advanced degrees.” She wanted to go there because it was closer to her home than the all-black Horace Mann. In fact, when she put her name down to attend Central high she had no idea of the storm she was entering. “The bravery doesn’t come at the beginning,” she points out.
As a 16-year-old, she was well aware that African Americans lived “parallel lives to white people”, and that the circumstances were devastatingly unequal. Segregation in the south was so total it was like living “in a complete bubble”, she says. She recalls going into shoe stores and seeing the “plush seats at the front” for white customers, while she was consigned to the “wooden benches at the back”. Her sister was often cross that their mother made their clothes, calling it “cheap”. But looking back, Brown-Trickey sees it as a form of everyday resistance, protecting them from the hurt of not being allowed into the changing rooms of “white” shops.
Yet, despite growing up under this vicious system, Brown-Trickey says she not only always felt safe, but was constantly told by her family that she was also “beautiful, smart and talented”. Originally, 80 students signed up for Central, but they dropped out after being told they would be barred from extracurricular activities and clubs. But, with her strong personality and confidence, Brown-Trickey was sure she would overcome this restriction. She says: “I thought: ‘Give me two weeks. I’m talented, I’m smart, I have a smile to die for – that’s not going to last!’”
In reality, even the army’s protection could not keep her and her friends safe. Shockingly, all nine of the teenagers had to keep spare sets of clothes at school because they were routinely spat on or showered with cafeteria food. The N-word was normalised; while walking the halls Brown-Trickey learned to “walk close to the wall because some big bruiser would come and do a body slam”. Their legs were always bruised and heels bloody as other students would kick out and step on them. When they were alone, the violence was worse.
“Terrence [Roberts] was knocked unconscious, Jefferson [Thomas] beaten up in the basement,” Brown-Trickey recalls. Another of the nine, Melba Patillo, even had acid thrown in her face. They gave up reporting the incidents because nothing was done. How did she survive? Brown-Trickey said she chose to feel “sorry for the white kids at that school”. She thought to herself they “can’t even think”, thus turning their efforts to make her feel inferior into a source of strength and pride that allowed her to persevere.
The nine were kept separate at school, only allowed to see one another at lunchtime, to maximise their feelings of isolation, Brown-Trickey believes. Instead, the worse the abuse became the more determined they felt. She learned that “sometimes the courage is not courage, it’s just being pissed off; ‘I’m not gonna let you scare me like this. You can’t be this way. And I will be back!’”
Home, however, was no longer a safe haven, either. The “punishment was total”, she says; her father, a landscaper, found all his work had dried up. Their telephone constantly rung with threats that “they were ‘coming to burn your house down, we’re gonna kill you, grind your bones’”. Her parents would even get phone calls from people who said they worked at the morgue, asking them to identify the body of a child.
It must have freaked them out, they just couldn’t accept we were regular kids
The nine pupils largely suffered in silence, telling their parents as little as possible about what went on at school. Brown-Trickey understands how incredibly difficult it must have been for them to allow her to keep going back and calls their willingness a “tribute to us”. She says her parents “kept saying to themselves: ‘They decided this, we must continue to support them.’”
So focused were the nine on protecting others, they did not even disclose to each other the full extent of their individual experiences. Only at an NAACP commemoration, 30 years later, did Brown-Trickey learn the torture her fellow students endured. Unsurprisingly, she never graduated from Central; only three of the original nine pupils completed their allotted time. She was expelled, and when asked the reason, says simply that it was for “being tall, beautiful and proud”.
One day in the cafeteria boys were kicking and pushing chairs into her legs as she walked by with her tray. In retaliation, she dropped her chilli on one of their heads. When the teacher asked if she meant to spill it, in a small act of rebellion against their contempt, she told them it was “accidentally on purpose”.
She was suspended and when she returned a “gaggle of girls” followed her for a week, hurling insults and stepping on her heels, until finally one of them hit her in the back of the head with a purse filled with six combination locks. She spun round, knocked the bag from the girl and shouted: “Leave me alone, white trash!” The teacher and her National Guard escort said they only witnessed the end of the incident, and she was expelled in February 1958.
White students passed around notes saying “one down, eight to go”, and looking back she reflects how powerful the pupils “just turning up” every day was. “It must have freaked them out,” she says, remembering rumours they were communists because “they just couldn’t accept we were regular kids”.
After her expulsion, Brown-Trickey went to live in New York with Drs Kenneth and Mamie Clark, two renowned African American psychologists, who conducted the classic 1940 study that showed black children had a preference for white dolls. Kenneth Clark had assessed the nine pupils’ mental health during the school year to make sure they were coping. Arriving in New York, Brown-Trickey was greeted by a huge crowd and wondered which celebrity everyone was waiting for. But the Little Rock Nine had become a source of international inspiration, receiving letters from around the world. The Clarks arranged for her to study at a prestigious private school and her eyes light up as she remembers being part of the “New York intelligentsia, and never knowing which author would come to dinner”.
Later, as a student activist, Brown-Trickey met her future husband Roy Trickey. The pair were conscientious objectors, and when he was called up to fight in Vietnam in 1967, they left for Canada. They settled and had six children, while Brown-Trickey continued her life of work as an anti-racist educator and environmental campaigner.
For years she could not bring herself to tell her children what she had done or gone through as a teenager. She was, she says, at a loss how to communicate the violence and anger. Without the images to back up her story she didn’t believe they would be able to comprehend it. “It just didn’t make sense.” When her eldest daughter was 15, she finally gave her the film Crisis at Central High to watch. The resulting conversations, according to one of her younger daughters, Spirit Tawfiq, were difficult: “Sometimes my mother would be excited, and sometimes she would burst into tears.” Spirit went on to work at the visitor centre in Little Rock and wrote One Ninth, a play based on conversations with her grandmother, Imogene Brown, about the impact of the ordeal on the family.
Surprisingly, Brown-Trickey also kept her past a secret from her friends and colleagues. In fact, it was only when she appeared on Oprah in 1992 that she revealed her identity to her shocked social circle. The show had tracked her down using Canadian phonebooks, and she thought it time to share her experiences. Later, she returned to the US to work for the Clinton administration from 1999 to 2001 as deputy assistant secretary for workforce diversity at the Department of the Interior.
Today, Brown-Trickey works extensively with young people, jokingly telling me “old people are a waste of time”. She also finds inspiration in young activists, especially Malala Yousafzai, whose experiences she sees as a mirror to her own. While Brown-Trickey was not shot, she assures me that was not for lack of murderous intent, and she sees her story as proof that the US does not need to look overseas for evidence of terrorism.
The chaos of the recent US presidential election was “triggering” for her in many ways. Watching mobs of Trump supporters “losing their heads”, not “conscious of what they’re doing” was like “watching a kind of madness”. The police killing of George Floyd earlier this year meanwhile “felt like the 1960s, even worse because it was 50 years later [and] it’s still not a better time”. The current state of the nation provokes a deep sense of sadness, leading her to genuinely consider if she “wasted my life” in her struggles for justice.
Perhaps this is no surprise. The response to desegregation of education was white flight from the public school system, especially in the inner cities, which means that US public schools are more segregated today than they were in the late 60s. And African American girls remain far more likely to be suspended. Brown-Trickey laments that the “US has two values: violence and segregation, and they do them both really well”.
Making matters worse is what she calls a “profound intentional ignorance” induced by the “training” that Americans receive in schools. In Central high she challenged her history teacher, who was telling the class that slavery was good for black people and that they were more than happy on plantations. As much as we would like things to have changed, she highlights Trump as the “definitive example of an American education”. Trump’s administration went further than just defending the Eurocentric curriculum currently in schools. It also banned federal money being spent on “anti-American” diversity training – any training that used critical race theory and the idea of white privilege. This is not just a symbolic move – as an anti-racist educator, Brown-Trickey has seen multiple engagements cancelled.
Yet she is far from drowning in despair. She is very proud of the way young people are taking up the fight for racial justice through Black Lives Matter. And when speaking to young people she reminds them that it was only due to her and eight fellow students’ refusal to back down that Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne and broke the barricade around Central high school. People may feel powerless, she says, but with organisation, strength and commitment, “you can make presidents act”.