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Fifty years ago, most schools in the southern United States had yet to be integrated. Fifty years ago, nine black students were chosen to attend Little Rock Central High School, one of the first of these all white schools to be desegregated. Fifty years ago, Minnijean Brown-Trickey was one of these nine students, and Wednesday night she shared her experience and her insight with CU students and Boulder community members.
When the Little Rock Nine tried to enter Little Rock Central High School in 1957, they found their way blocked by angry students, violent protesters and the Arkansas National Guard, deployed by then Gov. Orval Faubus.
Eventually, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock in order to escort the nine students into the school.
The story gained national attention, making headlines across the country. Brown-Trickey said it was one of the most important moments of the Civil Rights Movement
“The world had not seen black children,” Brown-Trickey said. “Those were the days when we were the first.”
The students suffered from constant harassment, with open threats and acts of violence. Brown-Trickey explained how some members of the Little Rock Nine have scars on their feet from when other students would break glass in the gym and fill the room with steam. She said that many of the actions were “American terrorism at its best.”
Brown-Trickey said she was eventually expelled from the school because she dropped a lunch tray carrying a bowl of chili that splattered on a white student. She later moved and received her high school diploma before going on to obtain her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in college in Ontario, Canada.
She now speaks to people all over the country, talking about her experiences and helping people remember the past so that they can create a better future.
“I thought she addressed a lot of issues here at CU and for the U.S. as a whole,” said Myron Funchess, a sophomore majoring in sociology and ethnic studies. “It was a different perspective a lot of people hadn’t heard.”
Brown-Trickey said that, “despite the fact that we talk about democracy, we have to make it happen.”
She emphasized the importance of looking at and remembering history because it is “a brutal story, but also a beautiful story” that can help us know how and who we want to be.
She also said that segregation is internalized and externalized racism.
“(It) is in the very fabric of the United States, and has never been dismantled,” she said. “If we believe in race, we can’t change.”
Brown-Trickey spoke about the dangers of ignorance, repeating the phrase, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
She said that people are easily manipulated because they have not been told the truth.
“It’s no wonder we are who we are because we were structured that way,” she said.
She also stressed the importance of education, saying that there is nothing better than being in college because students are able to read and learn.
Tracey Melville, a freshman majoring in Russian studies, said that she respected what Brown-Trickey had to say.
“(She was) a difficult speaker to follow, but I respect her so much as a person and for everything she’s done because everything she said was still valuable and interesting to listen to.”
Craig Downing, a senior majoring in MCD biology and integrative physiology who graduated from Little Rock Central High School, asked Brown-Trickey to sign his yearbook when he reached the microphone during a question and answer session.
“It was nice to have someone like Minnijean speak at CU where there’s a ratio of 50 white people to one black person,” Downing said.
Brown-Trickey agreed to sign Downing’s yearbook, a request he said he made because he had never met any of the Little Rock Nine and thought it would be a nice gesture.
“I can’t even begin to understand what my life would be like had she not done what she did,” Downing said.
Brown-Trickey and the rest of the Little Rock Nine will be speaking at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
Contact Campus Press Staff Writer Kaely Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org