Minnijean Brown Trickey, Environmental and Civil Rights Activist

March 26, 2009

In 1957, Minnijean Brown Trickey was one of nine African-American students who broke the color barrier at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Read an interview with Trickey about her experiences as a member of the ‘Little Rock Nine,’ and her work as a social activist today.

Minnijean Brown Trickey was only fifteen years old when she gained her place in American history. On September 25, 1957, she and eight other African-American students faced down an angry mob to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. This trial by fire was just Minnijean’s first step on the path of social and political activism; she’s gone on to fight for minority rights and environmental justice both here and in Canada. Today, she inspires countless people with her story, urging them to put themselves on the line in the fight against social, economic and racial injustice. I spoke with Minnijean about her experiences in Little Rock, and her work since then.

Watch a clip about Minnijean and the Little Rock Nine from Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later.

So what happened on that first day of school at Central High?

What happened, for me, was really unexpected. There was a mob. The governor made an announcement on Labor Day that he was going to call in the National Guard, so they were there too. We thought that the National Guard was there to keep the peace, and protect us. So on the first day it was pretty shocking to get there and find out that the Guard were stopping us from going into school. We were sandwiched between the Arkansas National Guard and the mob, so it was quite brutal. I remember shaking. That’s the main thing I remember. I remember feeling very scared. And people were screaming obscenities, like ‘Go back to Africa’ and ‘Integration is Communism,’ and all kinds of crazy stuff like that. I was totally shocked. I had been a girl of the U.S. who had done all the anthems, songs and pledges, and then I hit that mess and I thought ‘Oh my God, this is what it’s really like.’ In a segregated society you’re safe, because you don’t do what you’re not supposed to do. You didn’t do stuff that was against the law, and everything was against the law – buses, trying on clothes, water fountains, restaurants, hotels, swimming pools. So you stayed in your place.

So what happened when you got inside the school?

First of all, when we got in on the 24th of September, the mob was quite big, and we were told we had to leave for our own safety. We were taken out secretly through the basement, and it was just scary. So we sat at home for almost 3 weeks, waiting. And we had to go to a federal court, because the school board filed an injunction to delay integration because of the mob and the danger. So we learned quite a lot in that period. Our lawyers were Constance Baker Motley, Thurgood Marshall, and a number of young lawyers in Arkansas. We did all kinds of press conferences. That three weeks was the preparation for what was to happen. By the time we started the first full day at school, we were pretty smart and clear and ready, and we were protected by the 101st Airborne. Lots of things that were to happen later when the 101st left didn’t happen on that first day – phone threats, bomb threats in our homes. So we spent those three weeks getting ready for all those crazy people who were behaving as badly as they possible could in every possible way.

What kids of things did other students do to you, and were the soldiers really able to protect you?

The 101st did protect us, but they couldn’t go into the classrooms. I remember walking into the classroom on day one and all these boys had their feet across the aisles. Of course, we were supposed to sit in the back. And I went out to get my guard and the teacher said to him ‘No, you don’t come in here.’ It was just a whole weird experience. They couldn’t protect us in the bathroom, so you’d get pushed around in the girls’ restroom, in gym – everyone has an incident with hot water in showers and glass on the floor during physical education. So the nine of us just figured, “This will be rough, let’s just go with it.”

How long did you have to “just go with it”?

The abuse actually escalated over time because the 101st left, and it never ever calmed down. It didn’t suddenly become nice, it didn’t suddenly become pleasant; it was constant. Former students who have done oral histories say they went home every night and practiced what they were going to do the next day to us. I don’t think we were protected. In some ways we were better off then than now, because no one thought to kill us right then and there. Although I’m sure they thought about it.

I guess you could say I was a troublemaker, because I tried to say that I should be in the Christmas program, even though we were told we couldn’t participate in any activities, other than going to school. That was considered trouble. We were supposed to know our place and act appropriately. So I’m not sure if I was targeted because of that. I have no idea because we [the black students] didn’t tell each other what was happening. When you’re in the middle of something — I call it “American terrorism at its finest” – you’re not sure if you’re crazy. We were kids; we weren’t sure if things were happening to each other, or if there was some kind of personality flaw that was causing us to be particularly targeted. We were lost in that, just lost in abuse. They threw soup on me a couple of times, and students got up on the lunch table and gave 15 “rahs” for the boy who did it the first time. So for me the abuse was constant, and I have no idea if it was for anyone else.

So how did you get expelled from Central High?

There was a group of 3-5 girls that followed me, stepped on my heels, called me names, spitting at me, just a whole range of harassment. As I was going in my homeroom one morning, these girls threw a purse at me, and I picked it up, and it had six combination locks in it. And I stupidly just dropped it onto the floor and said “Leave me alone, white trash.” I didn’t keep the purse, so I didn’t have any evidence of what happened. That was a good excuse to get rid of me. And after that someone sent around a card that said “One down, eight to go.”

Do you regret going to Central High?

No, not at all. That’s what we had to do. We figured out really quickly that this experience was not just about us, it was for everyone, because of the letters we got from around the world. We had to let everyone know that we were not going to live these isolated and segregated lives. It wasn’t pleasant, but it had to be done. I don’t regret it.

Minnijean Brown Trickey lecture, from 2006:


Get a roundup of broadcast and digital premieres, special offers, and events with our weekly newsletter.