Fifty years after the world watched the drama of Little Rock's school desegregation on television, one of the nine African-Americans who broke the Southern public school color barrier warned that Americans are forgetting this crucial episode in the country's history.
"Many people tell me, 'I've never heard of the Little Rock crisis,' and that's a tragedy," Minnijean Brown-Trickey told a Social Justice Speaker Series audience of more than 150 people at Saint Mary's Soda Center.
"It's not always part of the core curriculum, but it's American history at its best," she said. "For a moment, the image of U.S. history went from one of white-wigged, old white men to young, optimistic black children."
On the eve of Black History Month, Brown-Trickey recounted her first days at Little Rock's Central High School in September 1957, when she and eight other black students attempted to enroll in the all-white school following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision prohibiting segregation in public schools.
Brown-Trickey remembered that when she was a 15-year-old walking the 12 blocks from her house to Central High for the first time, she was thinking, "I have a beautiful smile, I can sing, and I'm smart. Who wouldn't love me?"
But when the "Little Rock Nine" arrived at the school, they were confronted by the Arkansas National Guard and large crowds of whites screaming obscenities and death threats.
"At our all-black school, we had always pledged allegiance to the flag," Brown-Trickey recalled, "But now we were realizing that those words didn't mean anything, they never had, and maybe they never would."
The escalating tension in Little Rock ultimately prompted President Dwight Eisenhower to send more than 1,000 members of the 101st Airborne to Central High. The soldiers escorted Brown-Trickey and the other black students to class and formed protective barriers throughout the halls.
Brown-Trickey, who has spent her life fighting for the rights of minority groups and received the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor, said the issue of racial segregation in U.S. public schools is just as relevant today. She cited the Harvard Civil Rights Project's 2004 "Brown at 50" report, which cautioned: "We are celebrating a victory over segregation at a time when schools across the country are becoming increasingly segregated."
While Brown-Trickey said that she is proud of the accomplishments of the civil rights movement, she cautioned against complacency.
"Today's black high school students might say, â€˜What happened? Despite all of these heroic sacrifices, it's 50 years later and I'm still here in an under-funded school.'"
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