In 1954, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional for school districts to mandate segregation. Three years later, Minnijean Brown-Trickey and eight other Black students chose to attend Little Rock Central High School during its first desegregated year; they became known to history as the Little Rock Nine. It was an experience she ultimately needed to heal from.
Brown-Trickey is a faculty member of the Clinton School of Public Service’s Racial Healing Certification Program and was a featured guest on MSNBC’s National Day of Racial Healing Town Hall. I sat down with her last summer to learn more about the Racial Healing Certification Program. During our conversation, Brown-Trickey generously shared insights from her lifelong pursuit of social justice. She drew parallels between her experiences as a teenager and what young people currently face, as schools are once again battlegrounds in America’s long struggle with racism.
Everyday Life, Everyday Resistance
Minnijean Brown-Trickey refers to the 1950s as the Middle Ages, though she is quick to point out that the issues of that era remain critical today. It was a time when young Black girls and White girls in Little Rock, Arkansas, rarely interacted socially. Despite all she could not do in the segregated South, Brown-Trickey’s family provided her with physical and psychological safeguards.
“Part of living in a segregated society, in Jim Crow,” she says, “you know that you can’t go into the theaters downtown and you’re never going to sit at a [soda] fountain and twirl around with your crinoline. But you don’t care, because you have a parallel existence in the Black community, where you’re protected.”
Her parents devised ways to partially insulate Brown-Trickey and her siblings from the harms of segregation while also teaching them how to navigate the realities of Jim Crow. “The idea was,” she recalls, “you go to the bathroom before you leave home because you’re not going to that brown ugly door in the basement that says Colored Women when there’s a pink door upstairs that says Ladies. There’s no mention [at home] that the water fountains say colored, because you drink water before you leave home.”
Neighborhood mothers modeled how to integrate activism into everyday life. As Brown-Trickey describes, “Activism was not easy in the ‘50s. There was no marching, but there were all these little resistances” to the notion of white superiority. “Our mothers made our dresses – and one mother made our hats – so we didn’t have to go to the store and be treated badly. Whenever my mom was asked her name, she would say Mrs. W.B. Brown, so no White person could call her by her first name. Our mother told us, ‘you do not say yes ma’am, no ma’am, yes sir, no sir.’ She just said that’s from slavery and you don’t have to do it. ”
“When you’re a kid, you don’t know that’s a form of resistance. It only becomes clear when you’re older,” says Brown-Trickey. “That’s the simplicity of resistance.”
The Most Beautiful School in America
When the school district announced plans to integrate the high school near her family’s home, 15-year-old Brown-Trickey and four of her friends eagerly signed up. “We thought, this will be fun, we can walk,” she says. Going to Central rather than the school designated for Black students was a much shorter distance.
Brown-Trickey didn’t anticipate the National Guard or angry mobs of parents greeting her on the first day of school, as depicted in now-famous photographs. She recalls faint awareness of the Arkansas governor’s race in 1957. Candidates were riling up White parents and using scare tactics about the perceived dangers of desegregation for White children. But she believed racism was “about old people” and that teenagers, like her, would be nice to each other.
“It’s a good thing you couldn’t see [in the photographs] that we were shaking and we’re really scared. When I look at the photos, I see us being bewildered. I hadn’t ever been hated before,” she says. “I guess that was the disappointment.”
Adult mindsets filtered down to children, making school a minefield for Brown-Trickey and the rest of the Little Rock Nine. In more recent years, she met Malala Yousafzi and realized they lived the same story in different eras, both facing violence for simply wanting an education. “They didn’t kill me [at Little Rock Central], but they were going to. I mean there were so many threats, they would have at some point,” says Brown-Trickey.
Hateful language in the hallways, physical assaults, bricks thrown at her bedroom window, threatening calls made to the house. Angry White townspeople even stopped doing business with her father’s landscaping company. All of this fueled Brown-Trickey’s persistence at staking a rightful claim to education, not to mention basic participation in the life of her own hometown.
She says, “My mindset was, ‘you don’t want me here, so I’m coming back. Keep it up, I’m coming back.’ It was just pure resistance.”
Her parents exchanged plenty of worry and trepidation behind the scenes, taking turns keeping each other calm. But they never tried to persuade her to leave school. They admired her conviction and believed in her agency to make good choices. She remembers her mother caring for her in subtle ways during that era, allowing her to stay up late to read (a favorite pastime), or suggesting she take a day off now and then.
Finally, Brown-Trickey was expelled after another girl threw a purse filled with six combination padlocks at her head. The expulsion caused Brown-Trickey nearly forty years of inner turmoil and shame. Years later, the former vice principal told her the expulsion was a protective measure to save her life. As an adult, she also learned that the White girls who attacked her reported that their contempt came from seeing her walk through the hallways like she belonged there, with pride and dignity. Both of these revelations liberated her and relieved all guilt. “I realized none of it was about me,” she says.
According to the expulsion notice, because Brown-Trickey verbally insulted the other student, she violated school administrators’ expectation that she not respond to verbal or physical harassment. The notice is now held at the Smithsonian Museum and has been featured in a past exhibit about the disproportionate severity of punishment for Black children in schools – an ongoing issue today.
Another indicator to Brown-Trickey that the past is also the present: Brown-Trickey sees parallels in the past rhetoric around school desegregation and contemporary arguments about how history is taught in schools. “People suffer from what I call profound intentional ignorance. The book banning and all those things are sad. But I get letters from kids, emails from kids, and I talk to young people and they know a lot. You can’t ban the books because they’re going to get them. They have access to information that [adults] can’t even imagine.”
Healing through Activism
“My daughter often says to me that I’m not bitter about Little Rock,” says Brown-Trickey, “Well, I’m 80 years old, so I’ve had time to work through that.”
Brown-Trickey explains that she never chose to be an activist; she simply chose to go to her neighborhood school, and the experience made her an activist. “My investment in activism is a healing process,” she says. “It’s healing me and it’s about healing the world.”
As time wore on, the disappointment she felt on the first day of school turned to deep sorrow. She felt most sorrowful for her White peers, who were trained to hate and didn’t have the freedom to rethink the premise of white supremacy. The secret to processing feelings like sorrow and anger, in her experience, is to turn them into energy for social change.
In that spirit, Brown-Trickey spends a lot of time in conversation and correspondence with young people. She shares her full story generously with one primary aim:
She also trains young people in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy and practice of nonviolence as an antidote to the training in violence she sees pervading society up to the present day.
“How much energy it takes to maintain all of this!” she says, referring to white supremacy and violence. “If we could let go of that energy, what kind of society could we become? If we turn that energy into the Beloved Community, it’s just as easy to do that, in my opinion, as it is to do the other thing.”
According to Brown-Trickey, we have everything we need to activate Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community, where people of all backgrounds create a new social reality together.
“Some Indigenous groups have a thought process,” Brown-Trickey says, “where if you have the four colors [red, black, yellow and white], if you have all four people in the room, there’s something significant that happens. We should be pulling from everyone and putting it together. There’s enough knowledge for us to be amazing.”