The following is a Q&A conducted by Spirit Trickey-Rowan, daughter of Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the first black students (Little Rock Nine) to desegregate Central High School in 1957. Spirit is an Interpretive Park Ranger and Public Information Officer at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. She has worked at the Historic Site for eight years and has a strong commitment to keeping the stories and legacy of the civil rights struggle alive in her personal and professional capacity.
Minnijean Brown Trickey has led a life of activism in the areas of civil rights and human rights. She is committed to peacemaking; environmental issues; developing youth leadership; diversity education and training; cross-cultural communication; gender and social justice advocacy.
WATCH A NBC NIGHTY NEWS WEB EXCLUSIVE PROFILE OF MINNIEJEAN BROWN TRICKEY HERE:
Spirit Trickey-Rowan: In 1957, did you realize the magnitude of your decision to simply transfer schools [and enter Little Rock Central High School]?
Minnijean Brown Trickey: First of all, you have to understand you can’t understand the magnitude of hatred. We thought we were going to school, that there might be a few name calling, but no sense of the depth of hatred that we were to experience. The mob on the first day was unbelievably shocking and helped us understand the magnitude of what we were doing.
STR: What is the most pivotal moment in your life prior to the 1957 crisis that enabled you to understand the brutality of a segregated society?
MBT: The lynching of Emmett Till in 1955. We were the same age. It gave some sense of the danger that black people were in.
STR: What impact did your experience at Central High School have on your family in the following years?
MBT: Leaving Little Rock as the eldest of four children meant that the family dynamic changed. I was important to my family as the eldest. My dad’s work disappeared. He had a small landscaping business and stone masonry business which depended on white customers. And, he didn’t get any more work because his business was boycotted because of my involvement in the desegregation of Central. I think all of the parents had fear, and some even lost their jobs. The families were constantly under siege of one kind or another. Death threats, economic sanctions and the strain of allowing
STR: How did your family and community manage to instill a sense of self worth and confidence in you in the era of systematic oppression?
MBT: You basically don’t know it’s happening at the time. But, somehow I understood my worth through my parents, my church and my friends. In a segregated society in my experience it was necessary to instill confidence who didn’t have access to privilege in society. So, the illusion of safety was created and education was stressed as a key to ones own power. I knew that segregation limited my access many things that I wanted to participate in. For example, I had to sit at the back of the bus, couldn’t go to the public swimming pool, had to sit in the balcony of the movie theatre and I couldn’t try on shoes or clothes in department stores. But, I was not aware at such a young age of the power that is the essential component used to maintain segregation and oppression. For example, federal power, state power, the Supreme Court, laws, etc.
STR: What is the greatest lesson you take from your experience at Central? How did that shape the person you are today?
MBT: It sent me on a path to interrogate that institutional power and its effect on people. I had to understand the embededness of racism and as a society we haven’t interrogated our past. So, we’re left with small pieces of the struggles without understanding the importance of the struggle over time by blacks. Our society continues in a state of collective denial of the impact of the past on the present. And, until we do that roughly we stay miseducated and ignorant as a society, all of us. We often look outside the U.S. for examples of heroism and struggle, but are less willing to look at our own struggles.
STR: How can young people be inspired and motivated to create social change?
MBT: The Little Rock desegregation story is one of the most amazing stories in U.S. History. It has many, many lessons to teach us. The Elie Weisel concept of silent witnesses, the nature of mob violence, peer pressure, nonviolence, what dignity looks like in the face of brutality. Elizabeth Eckford puts it very well when she says that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. We all have the capability to rise to the occasion. When young people learn about the struggles they can see the connection between past and present and can analyze their own lives and what they can do to change the conditions they live under. In other words, how are the social conditions that were present in 1957 present in modern society and what do we do about it? In my experience, when young people learn about the Little Rock story they are inspired and invigorated to become activists, the authors of their own experience.
STR: Where does your spirit of forgiveness and deep level of understanding of race relations come from?
MBT: I went to a school where I was treated with great kindness and respect (after expulsion in New York) and that experience healed me to some extent and I literally didn’t even think of Central High School for a long time. I found that I hadn’t been well educated in any of the schools because I didn’t know about the holocaust. My experience at that school opened me up to the fact that so many groups have struggled with oppression and we all have to work together to dismantle it wherever it occurs.
STR: What else needs to be done to change education disparities in America today?
MBT: I am totally horrified that in the richest country in the world we seem to be unable to provide quality education for all children. Something really must be done about that. We can’t say “let them eat cake” and abandon quality public school education. If we use war for example we can always find funding. What is the problem with finding adequate funding for our most precious resource, our children.