By MARTHA NAKAGAWA
Among the participants of the 2014 Tule Lake Pilgrimage was Minnijean Brown-Trickey.
She is one of what the media dubbed the Little Rock Nine, a group of African American students that desegregated the all-white Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957.
The decision to desegregate the school came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional and called for the desegregation of all schools in the U.S.
Brown-Trickey said when her all-black high school called for volunteers to sign up for Central High, she put her name on the sheet.
“Central was this big, beautiful high school,” she said. “And it was 11 blocks from my house, and I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, that’s going to make it easy for me to get to school.’ I could walk to school with my friend because my best friend also signed up as well.”
When Brown-Trickey told her mother she had signed up to go to Central High, her mother’s response was, “We’ll see.”
Before she could set foot in Central High, however, Brown-Trickey and the other African American students had to attend several meetings with Little Rock School Board members, who made it clear to the African Americans students that they could not participate in extracurricular activities and to be prepared for harassment.
“Every time I went to one of those meetings, I had to re-make the decision. Did I want to go?” recalled Brown-Trickey. “The school board was kind of interviewing us, and I felt they were trying to discourage us by saying, ‘Oh, it’s not going to be any fun.’”
She later learned that an estimated 7,200 students had signed up. From that pool, 20 African American students were chosen. However, because segregationists were threatening violence and because Gov. Orval Faubus went on TV on Sept. 2, 1957, announcing plans to deploy the Arkansas National Guard, Little Rock school district officials advised the African American students not to attend the first day of class on Sept. 3.
On Sept 4, only nine of the chosen African American students showed up at Central High, including Brown-Trickey. The other eight were Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed and Melba Pattillo Beals.
“When we tried to get in, the guards stopped us,” said Brown-Trickey. “Then there was a mob behind us but the guards wouldn’t let us go in.”
Somehow the nine students made it through the jeering mob and arrived home without injury.
In recalling that day, Brown-Trickey said, “I thought, ‘God, these people are really stupid. They’re behaving so badly. They looked like they were insane.’
“And we were shaking because I don’t think I’d ever had anybody threaten me or treat me with contempt like that. A lot of women in the mob were screaming things like, ‘Kill them,’ ‘Go back to Africa,’ ‘Integration is communism,’ ‘Integration is against God’ — the same things that we see now in different places.”
The event made international headlines. Brown-Trickey was only 15 years old. Despite the threats and potential for escalating violence, she didn’t back down.
Brown-Trickey paused as she thought about why she decided to return. “I mean, if we hadn’t decided to go back, it would have…I mean, I can look at it from this half-century perspective and say, ‘If we hadn’t gone back, desegregation of Little Rock would have been delayed for another 10 or 15 years.’ But right then, I just thought, ‘Who do they think they are?’”
Following that day, the Little Rock School Board filed an injunction to suspend desegregation, saying it was too dangerous, but U.S. District Judge Ronald Davies ruled that desegregation must proceed.
Davies also issued orders for Faubus and Arkansas National Guard officers to stop blocking the court’s desegregation ruling. As a result, the National Guard was removed from school grounds, and when the nine students arrived at Central High on Sept. 23, the Little Rock police had to control the rowdy mob that grew to more than 1,000, with the threat of the mob storming the school.
“So we went a second time,” said Brown-Trickey. “And we went in, and we were in there for about an hour but the mob had grown so big outside that they came and said, ‘You have to go. It’s getting too dangerous.’ So we scurried out through a bottom exit.”
Outside, the mob had beaten up four African American reporters — all captured on television.
Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann contacted President Eisenhower for federal assistance, and Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10730, which commanded the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, excluding its African American soldiers, to escort the nine students. In addition, he federalized the Arkansas National Guard, taking them out of the control of the state.
On Sept. 25, the nine students, accompanied by U.S. Army soldiers, entered Central High.
By the end of November, the situation outside the school had calmed down enough that all Army troops were removed, but inside, the nine students continued to endure a never-ending series of abuse throughout the school year.
“It was horrible,” said Brown-Trickey. “They beat us up every day. They kicked us and threw acid and spit at us and turned the hot water on in the shower. They knocked the boys unconscious. Anything you could think of.
“But we just kept going. And we got so we didn’t tell our parents. And we didn’t tell each other because if you’ve experienced discrimination, you don’t tell anybody because you’re ashamed. That’s how it works. The school was not interested in what was happening to us, and the rule was, if the teacher didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.”
To make matters worse, the nine African American students among 2,000 white students were separated and never had classes together.
In February 1958, Brown-Trickey was suspended for calling one of the white tormenters “white trash,” although it was in response to the white student hitting her.
Meanwhile, segregationists were spearheading a movement to take control of the local public schools and successfully shut down Central High for the following 1958-59 school year.
In retrospect, Brown-Trickey said she’d make the same decision but wonders if she’d allow her own daughter to do the same.
“Sometimes things are so bad that something like that gives hope,” said Brown-Trickey. “I mean, it was hopeful the reason we did it. It was hopeful for black people in Arkansas, in the South, and that could mean things were changing, so you survive on hope.
“But when my daughter was 15, I asked myself, ‘Would I let her go?’ It was really hard. I really didn’t know, and it was then when I realized how much I admired my parents.”
Brown-Trickey said her parents, Willie and Imogene Brown, never tried to dissuade her from going back to Central High.
“They didn’t say, ‘You need to quit’ or ‘You shouldn’t go,’” she recalled. “They said, ‘You get to decide.’ But it must’ve been really hard, really hard for them.”
She is also thankful for the letters of support they received: “We got hate mail from the people of Arkansas, but from the rest of the world, we got beautiful, supportive letters.”
* * *
Since then, Brown-Trickey has continued to build coalitions and has worked to educate students on the dangers of discrimination. Her activities have garnered her numerous awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award.
Among the programs Brown-Trickey is active in is Sojourn to the Past, a 10-day history trek that takes students to civil rights sites and introduces them to various civil rights icons.
Brown-Trickey said she came to the Tule Lake Pilgrimage to learn more about the World War II camp experience. She noted that despite growing up in Arkansas, she had never heard of the Jerome and Rohwer War Relocation Authority camps until viewing the documentary “Life Interrupted,” which was released in 2006.
“I went crazy and read everything I could because I was furious that I didn’t know about this,” she said Brown. “So I think we have to share as many of these experiences as we can and not rely on other people to tell us what is happening in the world.”
Brown-Trickey drew parallels with the Nikkei community.
“Sometimes we really don’t have a choice,” she said. “People force us to do things. Let’s look at the people who refused to sign the loyalty questionnaire or the ‘no-nos.’ They got punished but they had to do it. Yet, even their own community got mad at them.”
However, Brown-Trickey was encouraged to see that the Tule Lake Pilgrimage focused on acceptance, healing and understanding what had occurred.
“I need to be around people who are working towards change,” she said. “I need to be around people who are trying to heal from horrific things because it helps me heal.”