by Janet I. Martineau
When it came to discussing her place in history, Minnijean Brown Trickey did not mince words on Monday night when she spoke at Saginaw Valley State University as a Dow Visiting Scholar.
“If you want an All-American hero, then I am it,” the 70-year-old said, her voice rising. “Eat your heart out Lady Gaga, Britney.”
She can, after all, lay to claim that there is a statue of her in Little Rock, Ark. -- a rarity for people who are still living.
Trickey’s presentation was, well, tricky.
Some people in her audience (myself included) knew exactly what happened to her 54 years ago this month, in the days in and around her 16th birthday (and my 12th). And we are forever bound together by the pain of it.
But the majority of her audience were SVSU students who had no idea.
Because what happened to her is not taught in history classes in America, she alleged.
“There is a unit about it in New Zealand history classes, in South African history classes, in Belfast and the rest of the United Kingdom, but not here.”
Trickey was a member of the Little Rock Nine -- nine black teen-agers who, on Sept. 2, 1957, voluntarily tried to enter the segregated (as in all-white) Little Rock Central High School.
It was a major moment in the Civil Rights movement, and set off an epic battle between the door-blocking Arkansas National Guard and the eventual door-opening U.S. Army -- complete with weapons, tanks and helicopters.
“I’m just going to school,” Trickey repeated several times Monday night, quoting from a poem about the event. And for that she and the eight others -- three boys and five girls -- were spit upon by screaming mobs, some of their parents lost their jobs, and their families endured endless obscenity-laced telephone calls threatening death and worse.
|...and in 1957|
“They thew away their dignity and it landed on us,” she said of the state's national guard and crush of screaming whites.
“Look it up on Google,” she told the SVSU students. “Our lawyer back then was Thurgood Marshall. He was very cute. Look him up on Google too.”
In her “Return to Little Rock” lecture, Trickey showed black and white news footage -- that’s all there was back then -- of the confrontation. Of herself speaking to the cameras. Of the soldiers, the Ku Klux Klan, the venom spewed by white students and the Arkansas governor.
Soon into her hour-long talk, it became clear Trickey is still the person she was back then, the passionate and outspoken and society-challenging social activist kid who is now a senior citizen. But, she said more than once as well, do not mistake her words for anger “but for sorrow, for sorrow. I spent many years thinking I was angry, but it really was sorrow.
“In those years we used to hide under our desks from the Russians, but the enemy was not outside the U.S. It was right down the street. (What happened) to us ain’t about black history. It’s about American history.
“The things I believed in (liberty and justice for all) were shattered. Seeing the guy (police officer) with the gun and the stick shaking as he drove us out of the school and into the street...so afraid of his own people. That it took three weeks for the federal government to get its act together and send the 101st Airborne so we could finally enter the school on Sept. 25....”
Quoting James Baldwin, she said the Little Rock Nine crisis was an example of “history being more beautiful and terrible than we know.” Had she, her eight friends and their families known the years of abuse that would follow, she admitted, they might not have taken the path that ultimately changed American education. “But then we would have missed something too.”
In the years since, Trickey earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work, raised six children, received the prestigious U.S. Congressional Gold Medal as well as numerous other awards, and, during the Clinton administration, served as a deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Interior. Now living in Little Rock again, she also has been the subject of two documentaries.
But, she noted, she has not written her memoir yet “because I find words are insufficient; the Little Rock crisis was American terrorism at its finest.”
|The Little Rock Nine under federal escort|
In linking that 54-year past to the present, Trickey said that “scores of silent witnesses stood by and did nothing” back then, adding that such behavior continues today with “the fill-in-the-blank people we hate this week. I urge you to be a traitor to the narrow-mindedness we have in this country.
She asked all people to “find their common ground; don’t tell me how different we are” and to learn and practice the values of non-violence.
She suspects the Little Rock Nine story is hidden in American history “because nobody wants you to know 14 and 15 year old boys and girls changed the world; that ordinary teen-agers stretched themselves to the find their courage for the cause of eduction” and that she is looking for that same courage today.
“We still have throwaway children in a land of democracy; underfunded schools.”
As for that statue of her -- each of the Little Rock Nine has a statue, in view of the governor’s office in Little Rock, with each allowed to pick a quote to appear on his or her statue.
Minnijean Brown Trickey says she turned to the words of Gandhi for hers:
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
For the names of the Little Rock Nine and what became of them, log on to the slightly outdated http://www.centralhigh57.org/The_Little_Rock_Nine.html