Heard on campus -- Lessons of the Little Rock Nine

A smile covered the face of Minniejean Brown Trickey as she said, "History is not dead as long as I am alive."

With that direct statement, Trickey framed her presentation to more than 150 assembled in Penn State Harrisburg's Student Center as she profiled the historic events in Little Rock, Ark. more than 50 years ago.

As a teenager in 1957, Trickey entered the civil rights movement – and America’s consciousness – through the front doors of Central High School in Little Rock. As a member of the Little Rock Nine, she took her place in what had previously been a whites-only school. As a social activist today, she looks back on the "brutal experience" of 1957 to frame lessons for America today as a "spokesperson for diversity.”

The evening presentation was one of a series of events surrounding the college’s eighth annual Summer Reading Program in which all first-year students engage in activities designed to enhance intellectual interaction even before formal classes begin. This year’s book is, Warriors Don’t Cry, by Melba Pattillio Beals, a member of the Little Rock Nine.

Each student attending a summer session of the University’s First-Year Testing, Counseling and Advising Program received a free copy of the book with a web site established which includes questions to consider in each chapter, the Civil Rights Movement, and other resources. The interaction is continuing this semester with work in English composition and other courses.

Fate made Trickey one of the Little Rock Nine who "only wanted to go to school and not be a part of history," she points out. But the admission of the black teenagers turned into a test of the U.S. Constitution. "The governor ringed the school with Arkansas National Guard (in an attempt to stop the Nine). By using the National Guard, the governor made it a Constitutional issue – a test of the American document we hold so dear."

In her poignant presentation, she pointed to President Eisenhower who responded to the issue by sending federal soldiers to Little Rock to assure the entrance of the Nine into the high school. Delivered each day by U.S. Army vehicles and surrounded by armed troops, the Nine walked a mob gauntlet to enter.

Showing a video clip of herself and her eight fellow classmates on that first day at Central High School, Trickey recalled, "It was a brutal experience." Her time as a student there was marked by acid attacks, thrown feces and urine, vandalized lockers and 50 bomb threats in the first month. "All the children – black and white – suffered," she pointed out. There were the unending threatening phone calls to her home and constant surveillance by state authorities so she and her friends even had difficulty "going anyplace" out of fear for their safety.

"A lot of kids believed we weren't human," she said. "We were separated in society – the back of the bus, separate restaurants, restrooms, water fountains." She added with a lesson for those assembled that "the white kids were doing what they had been taught and conditioned to do. It is important to not let others tell us what to think and not label others. It destroys the spirit and perpetuates hatred. We must be vigilant against defining others and being defined."

In her presentation, she returned several times to the theme of nonviolence. "We are all inherently nonviolent," she points out. "We (the Little Rock Nine) had to adapt quickly. I was always smiling. We joked and giggled instead of crying." She summed the theme up with "changing the world is not courageous. It’s a matter of adaptation."

Addressing her message to the college students in the audience, she asked, "Why do you go to school?" After a bit of silence, she told them, "You go to school to broaden your understanding of others, to receive new ideas and to test your beliefs."

Currently working on an autobiography, she followed by imploring them to look to the future by stressing, "If we want the best of everything, we have to stop believing we have it now."

Imploring the students to expand their knowledge, she mentioned the Rev. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech all were familiar with. She then asked how many knew of his "Triple Evils" speech which profiled poverty, racism and war. She urged the students to become familiar with that theme also as they work against inequality.

In conclusion, she reflected, "I’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand what happened."

 

 

Last Updated November 18, 2010