Former Little Rock Nine student on why her experience matters today

In 1957 Minnijean Brown-Trickey and eight other black students just wanted to go to school in safety in the desegregating American South but faced mobs, the National Guard and hostile students. Students in Burnaby will hear her story and why her experiences still resonate today.

In 1957, Minnijean Brown-Trickey and 8 other students needed federal troops to go to school safely

A group of people, one holding a Confederate flag, surround speakers and National Guard, while protesting the admission of the "Little Rock Nine" to Central High School outside the state capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas, in this August 1959 photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress. (REUTERS/Library of Congress)

As the American South began to desegregate, Minnijean Brown-Trickey was one of nine African-American students who signed up to attend Little Rock Central High School — an all-white school.

Those students, later known as the Little Rock Nine, were trapped between a hateful mob and armed guards blocking their way when they arrived.

After she graduated, Brown-Trickey spent many years in Canada, where she taught social work at several universities and advocated for First Nations people.

Brown-Trickey will be sharing her experiences fighting for social justice on both sides of the border with high school students at Burnaby Mountain Secondary School on Saturday.

But first, she stopped by On The Coast for a conversation with guest host Chris Brown.

Where do you start when you talk to students and tell them about this time and the importance of it?

Minnijean Brown-Trickey visited CBC Vancouver to talk about her experiences as one of the Little Rock Nine. (CBC)
This is a story that happened almost 60 years ago. And you might say, why does it matter? You get kind of brainwashed. They tell you you live in the best place in the world, and you talk about liberty and justice. And you try and go to school, and you find out people will do anything to stop that, including the governor sending state troops, and people threatening, burning effigies, beating reporters and threatening these kids.

Take us back to that day.

It was September 4, 1957. We were going to school. The governor went on television and said he was putting Arkansas National Guard around the school, but I don't think I understood it was to try and stop us from coming in. When we got there, there was a mob. Some of the people who counted said there was about 1,000 people. I'm 15, had never seen hatred, couldn't believe anyone wouldn't want me in their school. I was smart, talented, beautiful, everything you could possibly want! And yet we were met with this incredible hatred.

And what happened?

I think the most important thing for me was watching all that violence and hatred as they threw away their dignity and it landed on us. There are pictures, and I look at the Little Rock Nine, and we're standing there, totally petrified, but we're looking dignified and calm.

It ended after almost three weeks. Our going again on September 24 ... the mob was even bigger and ready to storm the school. President Eisenhower had persuaded the governor to remove the Arkansas National Guard. So we had to go into the basement, put our heads down, get into cars and speed away from the school on that day. He sent 1,200 federal troops to escort us to school, surround us.

It was horrible! It was terrible. The soldiers protected us to some extent, but I call it the ultimate bully story. [Other students] could think of some pretty mean things to do to us. Name-calling, spitting, throwing acid on our clothes, kicking us down steps, knocking people to unconsciousness.

In this Sept. 4, 1957 file photo, Elizabeth Eckford, right, is turned away by Arkansas National Guardsmen as she approaches Little Rock Central High. The guardsmen were instructed by Gov. Orval Faubus not to allow nine black students to enter the school, despite federal court orders. (The Associated Press)

When you come to a high school and you talk to kids and parents, what do you hope they take away from this?

Unfortunately, some of it's still happening. Race matters. Lots of things matter: class, sexual orientation, gender, colour, culture. What does Little Rock have to do with it? It's the definitive moral play. Do you behave in a non-violent manner in the face of violence? Are you a silent witness? Stand by and watch and do nothing? Are you one of the mob members? Are you one of the kids with persistence of the human spirit? So it's a story that resonates. I have all these images of these young people making very drastic social change.


This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Former Little Rock Nine student sharing her story with high school students of Burnaby

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.