By Sam Phillips
Minnijean Brown-Trickey, a civil rights activist, answered questions in Youngstown State University’s Chestnut Room following a screening of “Journey to Little Rock: The Untold Story of Minnijean Brown-Trickey.”
In 1957, Brown-Trickey and eight other teenagers were the first black students to attend an all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas following the Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating public schools. They faced death threats, heckling and physical torment, culminating in the governor deploying the National Guard to block them from entering the school. They went down in history as the “Little Rock Nine,” and the experience led Brown-Trickey to dedicate her life to social activism.
The first question asked following the screening was whether or not Brown-Trickey was happy with the changes that have been made since the civil rights movement.
“Nope,” Brown-Trickey said. “There haven’t been many changes unfortunately. Right now, in these United States, we are more segregated based on color, language, class and culture than we were before the Brown Board decision. That’s sad.”
Brown-Trickey returned to visit her school 45 years later. They told her some parts of history weren’t being taught, such as the high school being the first all-white school to allow African American teenagers to attend.
“You have to demand what you want. Stop teaching the illusory American story that is so soft and untrue. I don’t believe the history books because I know the stories taught at Little Rock, and if I’m not in those books, then I’m not buying it,” she said. “If we look at what’s being taught to kids and they’re not learning about the Little Rock Nine, how can they feel a sense of their own self?”
Brown-Trickey said schools need a more diverse population in order for students to succeed. She joked that she told her children to bring ‘one of everything’ because she doesn’t want to live a boring life.
“Statistics have shown that students in a multicultural environment do better. I will not be imprisoned in a segregated monocultural life,” she said. “We can afford learning about each other so we know that we are the same.”
A student asked her what she thinks is causing the rise of discrimination in the U.S.
“Profound intentional ignorance. We don’t know anything about ourselves and our history. We don’t want to know about anyone else’s history,” Brown-Trickey said. “The demise of a civilization is when they get too stupid to think.”
She said ignorance is the root of most problems in our country, and we need to address problems rather than pretend everything is perfect here.
“We have to criticize our country or it won’t grow and it won’t change. If enough people speak out, I am hopeful that it will make a difference,” she said. “Never forget what’s possible by our individual and collective action. If you don’t like something, do something about it. Otherwise, shut up.”
She said that James Lawson, an adviser for Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, told the Little Rock Nine that non-violent strategies would help them survive their situation.
“We have to honor who we are, what we are capable of, and see ourselves as non-violent creatures. Non-violence can end suffering and transform,” Brown-Trickey said. “It’s a way of life for courageous people. In our society, which has a high value for violence, you really do have to be courageous to teach non-violence.”
Brown-Trickey said teenagers and young adults don’t put enough pressure on their government to solve problems in modern society. She said people should have flooded the streets after the last school shooting and demanded something be done to prevent another one.
She asked how many people wrote letters or emails to the government after the shooting to express what they think should be done, and only a couple people raised their hands. She said that is a problem.
She also said she thinks young people can be the future if they take initiative.
“I’m telling you. I think the young people are going to take it forward, but we have to help them. We can’t go around saying they did this or that. It diminishes people’s efforts to change,” Brown-Trickey said. “We have to interrupt the status quo.”
Diane Gonda, an adjunct professor in the English department, presented the documentary. She said that students need to be empowered to change the world.
“It’s a message of non-violence. It’s a message of changing the status quo. I see some students are moved by the presentations, and they are so capable of being successful,” Gonda said. “I know that learning self-empowerment is the way to go. I am so honored to have met Minnijean, to know her, to hear her story and to do just a little bit to advance the cause of non-violence.”
Tyler Brentley, a graduate student working in student affairs, was inspired by the presentation.
“She did what she did at such a young age at a time when things were much different, much harsher, much worse. If she could do it at that time, then why couldn’t we do something similar now? This should be a starting point for us to dig deeper into history as a whole,” he said. “I think by informing ourselves, we can be a lot more successful in society as a whole. We don’t want to make mistakes they made and we can build on their triumphs.”