When Minnijean Brown Trickey tried to go to school in 1957, the mobs of white segregationists who aimed to stop the black 15-year-old girl from integrating Little Rock Central High School carried signs saying, "Stop the race mixing
" and "Go back to Africa."
Sixty years later, the wording may have changed, but Trickey still sees the same intent and hatred in today's politics that threatened to kill her family for the color of her skin.
"That's the American tragedy," she says, sitting on the steps at Valencia College
before a speaking event for students in Orlando. "All they did was drag out the same signs and slogans they used in Little Rock earlier for the new millennium. The sad thing is these people are really ignorant. That's the most horrific diss I can give people because ignorance is always a choice."
Trickey was one of nine black students known as the "Little Rock Nine
" who tried to integrate an all-white high school in Arkansas after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education,
which ruled that separate segregated schools for children was unconstitutional. More than nine black students were supposed to attend Little Central Rock High School, but many parents chose not to send their children for fear of losing their jobs and violence. On Sept. 2, 1957, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to stop the nine black students from entering the high school. Trickey and the other students attempted to enter the high school twice and were blocked each time by state guards and a racist mob of people that hurled slurs at them and burned a black effigy
. The students were only let in on Sept. 25, 1957, after President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in 1,200 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division to escort them.
Photo via Library of Congress
A rally against integration in Little Rock at the state capitol in 1959.
Aside from being terrorized and physically assaulted daily by their white classmates, the Little Rock Nine were also tormented after they left campus. Trickey says she felt safer at school because of the presence of soldiers. At home, she remembers her 3-year-old brother picking up the phone and hearing someone threaten to burn down their house down and kill their family.
"I think the totality of American terror at its finest doesn’t really get portrayed the way it should," she says. "They knew our cars, so my uncle had to give me another car to drive around so we wouldn't get hurt. One time, the whole family was surrounded by a group of boys who meant us harm. It was kind of a constant fear. I still can't work it out. I don't know the words."
Photo via Chicago Tonight
The Little Rock Nine pose for a photo. Minnijean Brown Trickey is the second person on the left on the bottom row.
Trickey didn't last long at Little Rock Central High School. She was suspended for six days after she dumped her lunch tray on two of her bullies, even though white students would spill cafeteria food on her without punishment, according to the Smithsonian
magazine. Less than a year after facing down mobs just to get an education, Trickey was expelled
for saying, "Leave me alone, white trash," to a group of white girls who harassed her and hit her with a purse full of combination locks. After she left, Trickey was invited by a couple to live in New York City and attend a progressive high school.
"I was an American kid singing, 'Oh say, can you see,' and putting my hand over my heart for equal justice, but I was living in a segregated society," she says. "You couldn't go to the movie theater downtown. If you wanted Dairy Queen, you had to go through the back window. If you were in a car accident and started bleeding to death and the hospital didn't have any 'C' blood for colored people, you could die. To have people attack, hate and terrorize you breaks your spirit … It unbroke my heart to be cared for and treated with kindness at this New York school. I was a smart, talented kid, and I was finally received as that."
Already a civil rights icon at 15, Trickey went on to attend college, serve in the Clinton administration and win a Congressional Gold Medal
along with other members of the Little Rock Nine in 1999 for "the selfless heroism they exhibited and the pain they suffered in the cause of civil rights when the integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas." Although she now lives in Canada, she still pays attention to American politics and segregation trends. Last year, a report from U.S. Government Accountability Office found that America's public schools are "increasingly segregated by race and class," according to USA Today
. Trickey says she worries about a nation that continues to place such a high value on social segregation, even if it's not talked about as openly as it was when she tried to integrate an all-white high school.
"We're not only talking about public schools," she says. "We have perpetuated segregation at reservations, Japanese incarceration camps, ghettos, barrios. We just really manage to do [segregation] well. And it freaks me out and disturbs me. What does it take for us to see that our working together and being together builds a stronger individual, community, society and nation?"
Trickey says she worries the demagoguery displayed by President Donald Trump on the campaign trail to attack black communities in "inner cities," undocumented people and Muslims could increase or shift to vilify others.
"The danger is for all of us," she says. "The moment we understand that we can make some change. … I think one of the possibilities for his win was low voter turnout. If we knew the struggle it took for women to get the vote, for black people to get the vote, for indigenous people, we wouldn't be lackadaisical. In my life, people were killed in Selma for the right to vote. Consequently, we have no reverence for voting, and that ignorance puts us in places that we don't know if we want to be."
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Trickey says she now spends her time talking to young people about using their power to make change.
"I'm sorry there had to be a Black Lives Matter Movement, but I'm so pleased with the creativity and excitement I'm seeing," she says. "To me, that's what a true movement is about, people doing things simultaneously without needing connections. I don't want to go in and tell people what to do, but I'll certainly help when asked. I’ve been arrested for a number of things, including tree-hugging and really any kind of thing you can think of. That’s the neat thing about having an experience like Little Rock. I'm not ever going to be docile or accepting things as they are. It’s kind of fun to be an old woman getting arrested and raising hell wherever I can."