Arts & Culture

Little Rock Central: 50 years later

5 min read

Documentary film and panel discussion mark pivotal Civil Rights moment

It’s been half a century, but it feels like just yesterday for at least one member of the “Little Rock Nine.”

“I can’t feel this so strong, it doesn’t make sense … you are supposed to be over it,” says an emotional Minnijean Brown Trickey in the opening of the film “Little Rock Central High: 50 Years Later,” as she walks the grounds in front of the historic Arkansas site. The school was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement as it tried to desegregate in 1957. “We thought we were going to school. Little did we know we were going to run headlong into white supremacist, black-hating people.”

The HBO film, which reflects on the events at the school 50 years ago and examines the state of the school today, was screened Sept. 18 at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, and followed by a panel discussion moderated by Henry Louis Gates Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research. Panelists included Brown Trickey, filmmakers Craig and Brent Renaud, James L. Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School, and David L. Evans, senior admissions officer for Harvard College.

Following the landmark Supreme Court decision that ruled public school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, Little Rock Central High planned to desegregate in 1957.

Brown Trickey was one of nine African-American students enrolled at the all-white school who were initially blocked from attending by the Arkansas National Guard summoned by the governor. After intervention from President Eisenhower, who ordered a United States Army escort for the students, they successfully entered the school on Sept. 25, 1957.

The film sets the scene with images from the 1957 conflict but the majority of the footage focuses on the present state of the school and examines the prevailing sense of a continued racial divide. Cameras capture the day-to-day classroom activity where white and black students sit apart from each other, the parking lot where mostly white students park the cars they drive to school, the buses that the mainly black students take, and the mainly white faces in the advanced placement classes.

Throughout the film, students, teachers, parents, and community members discuss the feeling of a lack of meaningful change 50 years after desegregation.

“I believe it’s a black school and a white school,” says one teacher in the film. “The gap should be closing but it doesn’t appear that it is.”

The discussion that followed was also heavy on emotion. Evans, who left a lucrative career as an engineer to promote diversity at Harvard, recalled growing up in Arkansas during segregation and his memories of Emmett Till, a young African-American boy murdered in 1955 for speaking to a white woman.

“Some of us thought their contribution to the struggle would be martyrdom,” he said.

The panel agreed that while great strides have been made in the fight against racism, there remains a tremendous uphill climb. They urged the teaching of the Little Rock story as a core part of U.S. history and called for the development of collective understanding about social responsibility.

Since her days in Little Rock, Brown Trickey has devoted her life to social activism. She served in the Clinton administration as deputy assistant secretary for workforce diversity at the Department of the Interior from 1999 to 2001, taught social work at Carleton University in Ottawa and in various community colleges in Canada, and continues to lecture in schools across the United States, teaching students about social justice.

She calls herself an activist for education for all children and shuns the idea of an education system divided into lower and higher levels of learning.

“All these disparities hurt all our children,” she said. “This indictment isn’t about Little Rock, it’s about the nation.”

Asked by a Kennedy School student how to inspire more “African Americans and disadvantaged people to dream more,” Brown Trickey contended that it was critical to try to break down the misconceptions that African Americans don’t want to learn, that they can’t learn, or the thought that a gifted African-American student is considered exceptional.

There are “embedded concepts in our society — we have to always help them dismantle that,” she averred. “It’s a huge monster but it’s not impossible.”

Following the discussion, Gates awarded Brown Trickey the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal. He praised her for her courage and commitment, and announced that medals would be awarded to each member of the “Little Rock Nine.”

After the event, a long line of fans queued patiently, waiting their turn to talk to Brown Trickey. Harvard freshman Aaron Frazier beamed with pride as he walked away with his program autographed by the “Little Rock Nine” alumna.

Frazier said Brown Trickey came to speak at his high school his junior year, spreading the message that being an African American and being smart doesn’t make you the exception. “She really changed the culture of my high school experience,” he said. “She made me accepted.”

Her work, Frazier added, was inspirational: “It shows me that progress can be made; it’s difficult, but it can be made.”