Here’s some uplift: Give thanks today for Minnijean Brown-Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, profiled in the Guardian by Kehinde Andrews.
When Minnijean Brown-Trickey looks back at old pictures of 4 September 1957, she remembers the day her courage kicked in. “I look at the photos of the nine of us, standing there, in contrast to those crazy people,” she says. “And what I say is that they threw away their dignity and it landed on us.”
Brown-Trickey has a huge personality, I can testify, and a backbone of steel. The article recounts the pervasive discrimination of the day.
Yet, despite growing up under this vicious system, Brown-Trickey says she not only always felt safe, but was constantly told by her family that she was also “beautiful, smart and talented”. Originally, 80 students signed up for Central, but they dropped out after being told they would be barred from extracurricular activities and clubs. But, with her strong personality and confidence, Brown-Trickey was sure she would overcome this restriction. She says: “I thought: ‘Give me two weeks. I’m talented, I’m smart, I have a smile to die for – that’s not going to last!’”
The article details that it not only lasted but it got worse. Brown-Trickey was expelled.
One day in the cafeteria boys were kicking and pushing chairs into her legs as she walked by with her tray. In retaliation, she dropped her chilli on one of their heads. When the teacher asked if she meant to spill it, in a small act of rebellion against their contempt, she told them it was “accidentally on purpose”.
She was suspended and when she returned a “gaggle of girls” followed her for a week, hurling insults and stepping on her heels, until finally one of them hit her in the back of the head with a purse filled with six combination locks. She spun round, knocked the bag from the girl and shouted: “Leave me alone, white trash!” The teacher and her National Guard escort said they only witnessed the end of the incident, and she was expelled in February 1958.
White students passed around notes saying “one down, eight to go”, and looking back she reflects how powerful the pupils “just turning up” every day was. “It must have freaked them out,” she says, remembering rumours they were communists because “they just couldn’t accept we were regular kids”.
It was a beginning, not an end, for Brown-Trickey. She was educated in New York. Devoted years to activism. Worked in the Clinton administration. Works today with young people. She is rueful about negative developments today, including resegregating schools. But she retains hope at 79.
As much as we would like things to have changed, she highlights Trump as the “definitive example of an American education”. Trump’s administration went further than just defending the Eurocentric curriculum currently in schools. It also banned federal money being spent on “anti-American” diversity training – any training that used critical race theory and the idea of white privilege. This is not just a symbolic move – as an anti-racist educator, Brown-Trickey has seen multiple engagements cancelled.
Yet she is far from drowning in despair. She is very proud of the way young people are taking up the fight for racial justice through Black Lives Matter. And when speaking to young people she reminds them that it was only due to her and eight fellow students’ refusal to back down that Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne and broke the barricade around Central high school. People may feel powerless, she says, but with organisation, strength and commitment, “you can make presidents act”.
Also defeat them.