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For 'Little Rock Nine' Member, Current Political Tensions Across U.S. Echo 1950s

Minnijean Brown Trickey is one of the surviving members of the Little Rock Nine. Photo: Gettysburg College.
Minnijean Brown Trickey is one of the surviving members of the Little Rock Nine. Photo: Gettysburg College.

In a black and white photo from 1957, fifteen-year-old Minniejean Brown Trickey appears in a white blouse and knee-length skirt. Her hair is neatly pressed and curled and her arms hug some notebooks. She looks out into a crowd. Just feet from her, soldiers stand in full uniform, combat helmets, included.

Archival video footage shows a mob of white adults and children; some are seen spitting at the black teenagers; others are seen yelling racial epithets.

Going to school back then, the 75-year-old remembers, was like going to war.

“I see soldiers trying to stop me and a massive crowd of violent people threatening death," she said. "The mob was gonna storm the school. They publicly beat up reporters, which was on television. They chased us away the first day and it took three weeks before we were actually able to go to school.”

Three years earlier, in 1954, the Supreme Court had issued its landmark ruling in theBrown vs. Board of Education case to desegregate schools. Its decision, based on an idea that so-called "white only" and "colored only" schooling did not constitute as equal schooling. The decision dismantled a system that had been based on a narrative that blacks were inferior to whites; it also heightened public tension across the country, which played out prominently in Little Rock.

As Brown Trickey witnessed, the new federal law did not change old beliefs.

“As a nation, we had to really look at who we are," she said.

Brown Trickey and eight other black students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School to carry out racial desegregation the court had ordered. After being kept out of the school by local protests and the National Guard acting under Arkanas’ governor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered 1,000 federal soldiers to escort Brown Trickey and the other eight teenagers in and out of the school.

[caption id="attachment_70041" align="aligncenter" width="400"] Minnijean Brown Trickey, right, and others of the Little Rock Nine leave Central High School under troop escort in September 1957. Photo: National Park Service.[/caption]

In a live televised address from the White House, Eisenhower says, "Under the leadership of demagogic extremists, disorderly mobs have deliberately prevented the carrying out of proper orders from a federal court. Local authorities have not eliminated that violent opposition, and under the law, I, yesterday, issued a proclamation calling on the law to disperse."

Sixty years later, Brown Trickey pays close attention to U.S. politics, but mainly from her home in Canada. She returns stateside regularly to lecture on college campuses. She says today’s political climate looks a lot like the one in which she grew up.

“The signs that are used are the same ones they were using sixty years ago in Little Rock. Seems like everybody just went to their basements and came out with the same slogans,” she said, while sitting on the steps overlooking a lake on the campus of Valencia College in Orlando.

So much of the social conditioning in the United States, from childhood into adulthood, Brown Trickey added, is about participating in social segregation.

“We have it through the immigration law. We have it through native reserves. We have redlining. We have ghettos. We have barrios. Part of what living outside the country does, it allowed me to see it.”

Brown Trickey delights in the places life has taken her and thanks her schooling for exposing her to more than a segregated life in Arkansas ever could have. But when asked about whether desegregation was good or bad overall, she responds without hesitation.

“We didn’t get it so we can’t say. It didn’t happen. I mean, the whole thought that—when I was 15, I thought, ‘Central High is the most beautiful high school in America. Once we go in, everybody will be going to schools.' How can you have an education system where you have kids who can’t read? I’ve been to schools where the windows were broken and kids were wearing coats, but these were kids of color. It indicates to me a really broken education system. It indicates an unwillingness to be truthful about the history of the country. It disturbs me because it’s about so many things.”

The civil rights pioneer has devoted her life to social justice not simply for African Americans in the United States, but for all disenfranchised groups.

And as it stands, she’s prepared to keep fighting.