I met Minnijean Brown-Trickey at a salon with civil rights veterans, as they called themselves, at the Sunnylands retreat in California, the first weekend in January. I had heard the name but I never met the woman before.
BROWN-TRICKEY: I’m one of the Little Rock Nine, and the Little Rock Nine are a group of young people who desegregated Central High School in 1957. So it’s almost in the Middle Ages — it happened a long time ago.
CAPEHART: I was compelled to interview Minnijean because: One, whether she likes it or not she’s a civil rights icon being one of the Little Rock Nine. But it was something she said. She said, “I want us to basically take down this hero myth that surrounds us. We are not heroes we’re just ordinary people who happen to do some extraordinary things.”
And when she said that it was so simple, but it was so profound because I understood immediately what she meant. You pick up a history book and you read these, these signposts of civil rights history. Rosa Parks refuses to sit on the back of the bus; the four little girls blown up in 16th Street Baptist Church; the March on Washington; the Little Rock Nine; the vote of ‘65 Civil Rights Act.This should either be the ‘64 Civil Rights Act or the ‘65 Voting Rights Act And all these things are so boiled down to one paragraph and everyone seems so heroic.
And, as a result of learning history that way, you lose sight of the fact that there are real people who were living lives and decided, you know what, I’ve had enough.
BROWN-TRICKEY: I think that was the lynching of Emmett Till. I think that was where — he was one month older than I was. And so deep in our hearts — mine — I thought this is crazy stuff. And I am just as unsafe as he was. And so it was about time had come to try to stop some of this stuff. Segregation was everywhere, and meanness was everywhere, and violence was everywhere. So wherever you moved, you could touch anywhere, you would be touching it. Because it was so pervasive, no matter what you did you were in opposition to it. We all defied. We all got on the bus, got sat in the front seat, got kicked off. We all drank out of the white water fountains and did little defiance. So wherever you went, it was there. There was something that was a barrier. Something that [said] you can’t do this. But I mean that resistance is accidentally on purpose.
CAPEHART: This is “Voices of the Movement.”
In this episode, you’re going to meet two women who were just children when they became part of two of the most iconic moments of the civil rights struggle. They didn’t set out to become civil rights icons, but their circumstances forced them into it — accidentally on purpose, as Minnijean put it.
You’ve heard about these moments before, but I want you to hear their stories — about what it was like to live it, and how they’re still processing a trauma they experienced as children.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that school segregation was unconstitutional and it mandated that schools around the country be integrated.
But get this: Schools in the South decided to take their time. So, the Court came back, reiterated its position by adding the phrase “with all deliberate speed.” That was in 1955.
As a result of those decisions and pressure from the local NAACP, the school board in Little Rock, Ark., developed a plan to integrate Central High School in 1957.
Daisey Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, recruited and vetted nine students to participate in the integration. And then she trained them on how to handle hostile situations.
Minnijean Brown, as she was then, was 15 years old when she became one of the Little Rock Nine.
BROWN-TRICKEY: Well you walk into this space. Because you choose and the thought ... So everybody said, “You are so courageous.” Well I wasn’t courageous when I signed that sheet to go to Central. My two friends and I, we said, “Oh we can walk and it’s simple and we’re just going to sign up. And why not?” So I kind of say I signed up because it was there.
I really thought that going to Central was going to be a thing where they would be as excited for me to come there as I would be to go to that school. And there would be this sharing of what teenage life is like.
CAPEHART: But Minnijean was met with a different kind of welcome.
BROWN-TRICKEY: People were shouting “Kill them! Lynch them!” I mean, horrible things. It was it was more frightening than anybody can ever imagine. It’s like some kind of monsters coming at you. You don’t really want to see it.
CAPEHART: On that day, all nine showed up for school, but none of them entered the school, and that’s because Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to block the front door.
On that first day of school, they wanted to go to Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. They didn’t make it.
BROWN-TRICKEY: What happened with all that hatred? It was intended to destroy us. It was intended to discourage us. It was to tell us that we were worthless and really what it did was the absolute opposite. We didn’t have to go back on the second try when we were turned away. We didn’t have to go back on that third try. But we we chose, so that’s where the courage kicks in later. There is no courage at the beginning. In my opinion, the courage ends up being defiance rather courage. I’m coming back. Y’all can act all fool you want. I will be back.
CAPEHART: The Little Rock Nine finally made it into school, three weeks later on Sept. 25. And that was because President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower got involved. He sent in the 101st Airborne to ensure the integration of Central High School.
But that wasn’t the end of their struggle.
CAPEHART: What did they do?
BROWN-TRICKEY: Oh, kick you downstairs, throw garbage, spit, drop acid — not that kind — off the third floor and make holes in your clothes. Melba Pattillo got acid in her eyes. The 101st washed her eyes out. ... Name calling, it was just constant. So I mean it was designed to break our spirits. And in some ways it did, but we didn’t show it, you know. I kept thinking the most important thing for me to do while I’m here is not to cry. And so now I’ll cry at the drop of a hat. I cried last night because there’s that time when I couldn’t cry, that I affirm now. So the idea is to make us feel unworthy.
CAPEHART: When we hear the age — 15 — we think of these innocent children. They have these visions of the world that are so pure, maybe naive. And then something happens that just strips all of that way from them.
BROWN-TRICKEY: That’s true.
CAPEHART: So is that what happened to you on that day?
BROWN-TRICKEY: Yes, everything [was] stripped. Belief in the mythology of the country. Belief in any kind of — yeah, it stripped and I think we each talk about what that stripping was about. I mean our hearts were broken — I love the word stripped. Stripped of illusions. Stripped of innocence, and we were stripped of I would say most belief systems. I certainly was. The preachers were joining in about it being abomination against God. And so all the sort of safe things that you get in your life about what the world is about. It just goes away.
CAPEHART: I asked Minnijean what I call the “innocence lost question” because reading as much as I have now on the civil rights movement, understanding that these were little kids.
And so every time I sit down — at least I try every time I sit down — with one of these icons who became an icon at a young age. I want to know what what did that feel like? And what did that do to you?
CAPEHART: Did your parents talk to you either the night before or when you got home about to prepare you for what was going to happen or to talk talk you through what happened? Did they try to discourage you?
BROWN-TRICKEY: Well, I mean, first of all, I think we’re really brainwashed in the United States about it being democracy and freedom. And even in a Jim Crow South, we’re still pledging allegiance and saying anthems. There is no preparation for hatred that’s going to come, that could come at us. And so, it was something brand new. So we couldn’t have anticipated what it was going to be like. Nor could our parents. So I mean I think the — I think the newness of it made it impossible to prepare for or to even — I’m still trying to work it out. I still can’t figure out how unbelievable it was. I can’t believe [the] hatred. I have been working on it for, you know, 61 years. So there is no logical conclusion to people’s behavior in that way.
I was once ... I was a social worker, so I was always doing therapeutic things for my people that I worked with, and one of the things was an exercise to go to your most basic emotion. So, all along, I thought my basic emotion about Central High School was probably anger but when I got it, it was sorrow.
CAPEHART: In the end, Minnijean and most of the Little Rock Nine didn’t finish their education at Central High School.
But she did graduate high school. She went onto college, became a social worker, and was a presidential appointee in the Clinton administration.
But the activism bug never went away.
BROWN-TRICKEY: It’s a life sentence. That’s my thing. All this activism is a life sentence. You do not give it up. I’m looking at these people. These older people. They’ve been doing this their whole lives. Very quietly. You don’t get away. It ain’t over. And it’s kind of cool.
CAPEHART: Hearing the way Minnijean describes trying to unravel why she was the subject of so much hatred, I think that may be the thing that stands out for me in stories I’ve heard of young people who “accidentally on purpose” became civil rights icons. That they just weren’t able to process how much hate was out there towards them, no matter how much hate they’d already lived through. And that it’s something they still think about, all these decades later.
That’s certainly the case for another person I met on the Faith and Politics Institute’s pilgrimage to Alabama, at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery.
Her name is Carolyn McKinstry, she was a 14-year-old when one September morning in 1963, just two weeks after the famed March on Washington, her church, the famed 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed.
The blast killed “four little girls” Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.
CAROLYN MCKINSTRY: Should I just start at my arrival at the church?
CAPEHART: Carolyn survived.
MCKINSTRY: I arrived with two younger brothers: Alan, who was 6, and Wendell, who was 10. I placed them in their Sunday school classes. I went up to the church office and I spoke with the church clerk. I worked under her. I was the Sunday school secretary and my job was to count the offering and record what happened during Sunday school and then to give a brief summary when it was over. And when I went in and spoke to her and she mentioned that she had received a lot of threatening phone calls that morning and she really seemed very agitated. I think that’s the word I would use for her. She she was clearly upset about it, but remembering now what age I was — I was 14 and we tended to minimize adult reactions to anything really. And I heard her but I kind of didn’t hear her. So I gathered my materials I said well, “Okay I’m passing these out upstairs. I’ll go downstairs and then I’ll be in my class until 10:15.” And at 10:15 I got up. My job was just to collect it all again and summarize it.
You had to pass the girls bathroom to get upstairs. And on that Sunday, as I passed the girls bathroom, I saw all four of my girlfriends there. Cynthia Wesley, whose father was my grade school principal, grades one through eight.
I saw Carol Robertson. Carol’s mother was our local librarian. Denise’s father ... Denise McNair. Her father was my ninth grade teacher at Parker High School. And Addie I knew pretty well, but Addie’s sister Junie — you never hear about Junie. Junie was in my Sunday school class.
When I passed them, I spoke to them. They were prepping and talking, but I didn’t stay there to talk because I had until 10:35 to have all of my data ready.
And as I spoke to them and headed straight up the stairs, at the top of the stairs was the church office and the phone was ringing.
I answered the phone myself and the caller on the other end — male caller — said “three minutes.” And as quickly as he said that he hung up the phone. So I took about 15 steps. I was at the very beginning of the aisle where the pews start when the bomb exploded.
What I thought I was hearing was thunder initially when I heard the explosion and the crash, but then all the glass came crashing in. I just really didn’t know. People were screaming and we had hardwood floors then. We have carpet today. So you could hear people scream you could hear their shoes on the floor. And someone said hit the floor. And so we all just kind of fell down trying to protect ourselves. We didn’t know what was going on. It was quiet. Just deathly quiet for about 15 seconds probably. But then I could hear feet on those hardwood floors and I knew that people were running out. So I got up to and ran out behind them left all of my materials behind. It would be probably about 3, 3:30ish somewhere thereabouts, before I would know that my friends had never made it out of the bathroom, that they had been killed.
We had had over 60 unsolved bombings in Birmingham, and no one had ever been brought to justice for those bombings. And it appeared that black people were just powerless to do anything about it. No one had been brought to justice. So here is the first bombing where someone has been killed. And we waited. No one was arrested after the first year. When they were renovating the building, someone said well they just have never taken anybody white to justice or a trial for the death of someone black.
CAPEHART: You should know that between between 1976 and 2002, three Klansmen would be convicted for murder. A fourth suspect died without being charged.
MCKINSTRY: We did not have a moment of silence. We did not have a moment of prayer. We did not have a special assembly. Or an opportunity to — Is there anything you want to say? No one ever said to me, “Are you okay? Are you afraid?” Because I was. “Do you miss your friends?” There just was no discussion.
And there was never anything said when the church was renovated and we came back into the church. If you’ve ever been there you won’t see any rooms with their names or anything dedicated to them. I think that being powerless to do anything about the bombing, that people just chose not to talk about it. That’s what I think. I lived in a house with four brothers and my father had taught them to be very protective of me and, in fact, my father was really, really strict.
But I realized, at that moment, I think it may have been a second bombing, the one in April of ’64, that I realized that I had felt very sheltered and protected with my brothers . . . you know if you bother me I’ve got four brothers that you have to watch out for. But after the bombing [at] the church, I lost that feeling, that sense of security.
By the time I moved to Atlanta I was, I felt like it was controlling me. The fear and the tension I still had after all those years. And I said I literally wore myself out. I went and bought a bike. I put a seat on the back for my baby daughter and then the other daughter had her own bike. We were riding every day until they said, “Mom, we’re tired. We’re ready to go home.” I joined a softball team and I played with a little team called the Atlanta City League — Women and I just wore myself out for about a year. And it worked. I was so tired when I went to sleep I would just kind of pass out. And the more I did it — I had to really focus on not thinking about it — the more I did it, it became a little bit better.
I had about almost 20 years of depression that followed me. It was hard. It was a struggle to figure that out. I think I was really more afraid than I could understand.
I didn’t know what the answer was at 14. I felt like there was an answer at 15, at 16. I thought there was an answer, but I didn’t know what it was. What do you do about hatred? How do you stop someone from hating someone?
CAPEHART: That’s the question. The one that sticks with Carolyn all these years later. And with Minnijean.
BROWN-TRICKEY: A person did a study of white women later, about why they hated me so much. And they said they hated me because I walked the halls of Central like I belonged there. So that ... The flying in the face of..how do you manage a difficult situation? Well, I didn’t think I belong there but I sure as hell acted like I did.
I could see why they would hate me. I was a beacon. We were we were beautiful. And given somehow a cast that would, you know if you had a halo around you — to them, that was how much they hated us that they thought we were some kind of supernatural beings and in a way I think we were.
CAPEHART: On the next episode of “Voices of the Movement,” we’ll have the unlikely story of [the Rev.] Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, from the perspective of the man who smuggled it out.
But before I go, I want to share one more thing that Minnijean said that I just loved and was too good to not share.
BROWN-TRICKEY: We’re trying to demystify the hero thing. You know they talk about Dr. King being a leader. And my thing is I know all these guys were — if they were anything they would be a bunch of rowdy young people, doing what they were doing. When we first met Dr. King — please don’t put this in the thing — What did we think? We thought he was cute.
CAPEHART: [laughter] Wait. We can’t use that? That’s fantastic!
BROWN-TRICKEY: No, you can.
BROWN-TRICKEY: You can use it.
I mean come on. I mean he was young, he was a preacher. We’re from the South. Let’s be real about this stuff. Dr. King has not always been a hero. He was a cute little Baptist preacher.