Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine and self-proclaimed lifelong practitioner of nonviolence, shared her experience with a packed crowd at National Park College on Thursday.
Eisele Auditorium of the Frederick M. Dierks Center for Nursing and Health Sciences was filled to capacity with community members and students from area school districts. Overflow seating in the building's atrium was filled and the event was livestreamed so those who could not attend the event could tune in as Brown Trickey and her daughter, Spirit Tawfiq, shed light on how the events of 1957 resonate with people internationally today. It was part of the inaugural "We Belong" speaking event hosted by the NPC Cultural Diversity Awareness Club.
It started as something as simple as signing her name, Brown Trickey said.
"They came on the intercom at Horace Mann School, which was the new black school in Little Rock that was built in the far east end," she said. "'If you live in the Central (High School) District, sign this piece of paper.' So ... I think there were four girls who said 'Sure, why not? We can walk.' And we put our name on the list with no great depth of thought.
"One of the things ... I want always to let people know is we don't have to be really deep about what we do. There's an Asian proverb that says 'In order to climb a mountain, you have to take a step.' So that step was to sign up and I don't want you to think that it was anything heroic at all."
Over the course of the summer leading to that new school year, she said administrators told them they would not be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, and if catcalled, they were told not to respond.
"On the first day that we went, we knew that the governor had called the Arkansas National Guard to surround the school, but we didn't exactly know why," she said. "Some people did. I didn't. They told parents not to come on the main street so my mom let me out and my minister -- two white ministers and two black ministers said 'We'll walk with you.'
"There was this crowd. It was like the American religious ceremony, football, and it sounded like a sports event. It was a roar, but it was hatred ... and you could feel the heat of the hate coming toward you. And I had never been hated in my life. Then the soldiers are in front of us and they're allowing the white kids to go in and not let any of us go in. So all the photos I see of us standing, we look really bewildered."
That bewilderment, she said, came from years of growing up pledging allegiance to the same flag, learning of "freedom and justice for all," and yet being hated by the students and patrons of the school and community for no reason.
"In the still pictures, you cannot see how scared we were, thank goodness, but it was just such a shock to find out that all those things we believed and said about our country didn't apply to us," she said. "It was that people were willing to kill us because we wanted to go to Central High School, the most beautiful high school in America sitting in the middle the city. We thought it was ours because it was in our town."
It was from this behavior that Brown Trickey said she learned nonviolence and learned to lead a life of nonviolence having seen violence firsthand.
"The first principle of nonviolence is nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people," she said. "So thank you, mob, of that you've made me this person I am."
Tawfiq, who was the chief of interpretation at the Central High School National Historic Site for 10 years, said she actually didn't learn of her mother's experience, or have an understanding of it, until her teenage years.
"Once I found out that my mother was one of the Little Rock Nine, which was a group of young people who combated American racism and terrorism, I was so invigorated and enthusiastic and excited about learning more, so I asked a million different questions," she said.
While working at the historic site, she said people would come to her and divulge their stories from attending Central High School at that time. One of the National Guardsmen who worked at the school during that time brought his story to her in hopes of letting Brown Trickey know she was remembered.
"He came to the historic site to speak to me specifically and he said 'I wanted to meet you because I want you to know that your mother was very special to me and we knew that there was an enhanced target on her,'" she said. "And he was choking up as he was speaking, he said 'I was in the bathroom one day and they were going to shove her head down the toilet, and I prevented that from happening.' Tears were in his eyes. I went home and I asked (Minnijean) and she had completely blacked that out, and that's nowhere to be found in the history books.
"What I always think about is 'OK, you had soldiers inside the school yet you were still being abused, but you still had to go home and you didn't have soldiers in your house.' That was what really seared in me is being a teenager and trying to go to sleep at night with people screeching their tires around your house, and just that constant, incessant fear."
Brown Trickey said she primarily speaks to students and in doing so she always encourages them not to get angry, but to get even in a positive way.
"One of our Little Rock Nine mottos is ordinary people can do extraordinary things," she said. "And what we want young people to know is that sometimes you've got to do something about something that's not good for people. ... That's the part I think we want to tell young people -- that it's possible and I know there are things in your lives that aren't pleasant, that don't honor you, that don't affirm you. So I say don't get mad, get even. Do something, challenge, knock the top off the standardized test -- whatever it is -- that's how you get even.
"Anger is a waste. All your energy goes into different directions; it's a waste. So, you focus that anger and get even with it."
Brown Trickey said young people have the ability to make those in authority act in times of injustice.
"We made presidents act," she said. "I tell kids all the time 'You can make presidents act.' They made presidents act in Selma. They made presidents act in Birmingham. We made presidents act in Little Rock and ... the Parkland kids -- who cares if they make the president act -- they're going to make somebody act. They made the society act and come forward, finally."
Over the years, Brown Trickey said she has received apologies from not only students who mistreated the Little Rock Nine, but those who stood by and did nothing. Apologies, she said, are important for both parties.
"So my first apology was on 'Oprah' and it was a guy who had thrown soup on me to pay me back for dropping soup on these two guys," she said. "Of course I cried and people said 'Did you accept his apology?' And it was 40 years later and I said 'Yes, because when someone apologizes it says it happened.' I have not known that I had been longing for an apology and so David became really good friends with Spirit. When he died, his family said 'You're family. You're supposed to be sitting with the family at the funeral.'
"It's a life sentence. That experience sent me to learn so much. I understand racism. I understand all that really (well)."Local on 09/14/2018
Print Headline: Little Rock Nine icon visits National Park College