Little Rock Nine members tell story of courage as they
integrated school in 1957
By Lou Fancher
They were just going to school.
It was 1957 and Minnijean Brown Trickey and Dr. Terrence Roberts had volunteered to be members of the Little Rock Nine.
"Going to Central (High School) was not courageous," said Trickey, who along with Roberts spoke Saturday during the Barbara Lee & Elihu Harris Lecture Series at the downtown Oakland Marriott. "We went there, and the courage came later."
"It is our privilege to have the opportunity to challenge the status quo," Roberts said.
As two of nine African-American students recruited by the Arkansas branch of the NAACP to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Trickey and Roberts faced an angry mob of white students, national guardsmen deployed by Gov. Orval Faubus, and a firestorm of national racism. It took NAACP lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, a protest letter from Martin Luther King Jr. to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the Army's 101st Airborne Division, minus its black members, to overcome the blockade. Even then, federal troops and the National Guard were required to insure the students could attend the previously all-white school for the remainder of the year.
Faubus closed all four Little Rock public high schools in 1958 in an effort to resist the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ordering desegregation, but was ordered in 1959 by the Supreme Court to reopen the schools and resume the process.
Roberts went on to graduate from high school in Los Angeles, receiving an undergraduate degree from California State University, Los Angeles; a masters from UCLA, and a Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. College faculty positions, a private clinical psychology practice and his current work as author of two books and principle of Terrence Roberts Consulting have provided platforms for civil rights activism he said began on the day he was born in 1941.
His mother made sure he knew it was racism when his birth was recorded in the local newspaper with only his parents' first names, not their full names preceded by "Mr." and "Mrs.," as was done for white families announcing a birth. Calling racism "pernicious" and a stereotypical notion causing people "to think of black people as creatures of myth, not really human," Roberts said the mid-16th century genesis of the term "race" created a whiteness-to-blackness hierarchy that clouds our vision.
"It interferes with our ability to make sense out of the truth that is there," he said.
From a colleague who couldn't imagine Roberts counseling a white patient to a realtor who literally ran away when she saw her new clients were black to recent shootings of unarmed black men by white police, Roberts said he's haunted by surreal nightmares that include his grandsons
"The fear about their fate concerns me," Roberts said.
Trickey said the parents of the Little Rock Nine were equally afraid. But when her mother asked if she'd like to stay home, she recalled answering, "I've gotta go see what they're going to do to me."
Physical and verbal abuse occurred daily -- including being shoved and dropping a bowl of chili, an incident that turned into a national story when two white boys were splattered and Trickey was severely reprimanded.
Trickey graduated from New Lincoln School in New York City. Earning her undergraduate degree at Laurentian University and a master's degree from Carleton University in Ontario, Canada, she worked in multiple roles in social service organizations, higher education and the Clinton Administration while raising six children.
"You just go to school and let the rest be history," she said, about her life as a civil-rights leader.
An early belief that if others are not free, she is not free, collides with people she meets who say racism is "covert" instead of real. Trickey said an "authentic conversation" about racism hasn't happened in the U.S., but is essential.
Refusing to put her still-monumental energy into changing the minds of "old people," Trickey has turned to the younger generation, like the students at the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center, the speaker series' presenter with Merritt College.
Freedom Center student Angela Drake greeted the audience of over 200 with a message that Trickey and Roberts said gave them hope. Drawing a timeline from slavery to the Jim Crow era to the disproportionate incarceration of colored people today, Drake said, "Slavery: just because something's redesigned doesn't mean it's gone."
Providing the students with answers to anti-civil rights voices and rally signs that say, "We're the norm," and "We're taking back our country," Trickey demonstrated the "I'll walk anywhere" spirit she had in 1957.
"Blacks came to the shores of America in 1615," she said. "When is it my turn to be the norm? My folks built (the country), you can't have it back."
Advocating nonviolence, Trickey said, "You can choose to be the bad kids, the good kids, the mean girls, the mob, the silent witnesses, or, be the persistence of the human spirit and that's how I identify the Little Rock Nine."