The West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (West Coast LEAF)’s annual Equality Breakfast is coming up on Tuesday, March 3 in Vancouver. It’s an event I look forward to every year, because West Coast LEAF always manages to line up an amazing speaker and other great entertainment (last year featured a tap dance portrayal of the history of women’s rights!).
This year is going to be no exception, with Minnijean Brown Trickey confirmed as the guest speaker. Trickey is one of the nine Black high school students who bravely desegregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Now known as the Little Rock Nine, these teenagers were an integral part of a watershed moment in the civil rights movement.
For tickets and more event info, click here.
From West Coast LEAF’s newsletter:
On September 4, 1957, teenaged Minnijean Brown headed off to her new school, Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was nervous, and with good cause. She and eight other black youths were slated to become the first black Americans to attend all-white Central High. They became known as the Little Rock Nine.
The Supreme Court had ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in its landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Expecting opposition especially in the southern states, the Supreme Court did not establish a timeline for the implementation of its ruling. However, after still more hearings, in 1955 the Justices did hand down a plan: desegregation in schools was to proceed with “all deliberate speed.”
The school board of Little Rock cautiously developed a court-approved plan to integrate its segregated school system. The Little Rock Nine and many other students signed up to attend Central High School, a premier school known for its academic excellence and stellar facilities. “I wanted to attend Central High School to get a better education, and I was one of the students chosen for having good grades,” Minnijean explains. However, over the summer that initial list of 75 selected students dwindled as the youth were warned they would not be able to participate in extracurricular activities and their parents’ jobs would be at risk. The threat of violence also grew heavier as September approached.
A crisis erupted when the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, called the National Guard on September 4 to prevent the Little Rock Nine from attending Central High. Governor Faubus instructed the Arkansas National Guard to surround the school and keep all black students out. Faubus succeeded on the first day. NAACP lawyers then sought, and were granted, an injunction that prevented the Governor from using the National Guard to deny the Little Rock Nine admittance to Central High.
On Sept. 23, the nine students entered Little Rock Central High School for the first time, ignoring verbal abuse and threats from the crowd outside. When the mob realized the students had successfully entered the school, violence erupted. As the situation deteriorated, school officials, fearing for the students’ safety dismissed the Little Rock Nine at lunchtime. The next day, President Eisenhower ordered paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division to escort the nine students into the school.
Although the Little Rock Nine were finally able to attend classes by late September, the fight wasn’t over: throughout the rest of the school year they faced ongoing verbal and physical torment and threats from their white peers.
This act of determination was Minnijean’s first step on the path of social and political activism: she’s gone on to fight for minority rights and environmental justice in both Canada and the US. With lifelong commitment to peacemaking, youth leadership, gender and social justice advocacy, she inspires countless people with her story, urging them to put themselves on the line in the fight against social, economic, and racial injustice.
Ms. Brown Trickey studied journalism in the US, pursued an online social work degree and then later pursued a Bachelor of Social Work in Native Human Services from Laurentian University and Master of Social Work at Carleton University. Recipient of four Honorary Doctorates, she has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Tribute by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, the International Wolf award, and with the Little Rock Nine, the NAACP Spingarn Medal and the Congressional Gold Medal. She served in the Clinton Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Workforce Diversity at the Department of Interior, and was the Shipley Visiting Writer for Heritage Studies at Arkansas State University. For the past ten years she has been a nonviolence and anti-racism facilitator for Sojourn to the Past, a ten-day interactive history experience for high school students.
Photo of Little Rock protest (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.