“I went because they didn’t want me there,” says Minnijean Brown-Trickey, our guest this week. It’s been more than 60 years since she made history. At 16-years-old, she and eight other black students found an angry mob and the national guard blocking their entry to Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Backed by 1,200 soldiers, they eventually made it inside for their first full day of class. White students threw hot food at them, called them names and even sprayed some of them with acid. One day, a white kid hit Minnijean with a purse. She responded by calling the student “white trash.” For that, she was expelled, which profoundly affected her trajectory. She ended up finishing her education in New York City and went on to become a civil rights activist and speaker. Minnijean joins WITHpod for a moving conversation about how she channeled the trauma she experienced into a life of activism, the continued fight for racial equality and more.
Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: I went because they didn't want me there, and it didn't make sense. And honestly, I went because I feel sorry for white kids that seemed not to be able to think. And I went because the social myths had been that white kids were smarter than Black kids, and then I found out, hmm, nope, not even close. And so it was like learning something every day that contradicted the social myths about us being so different and them being so, no.
Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to Why Is This Happening? with me your host, Chris Hayes.
Last month, I got to go to New Orleans for this really fascinating kind of town hall we did through MSNBC on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, where we did a day devoted to what we call racial healing, which is, I think, can be a slippery and amorphous term, but partly was inspired by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that does some really interesting work along these lines. They had sponsored the show.
We went down there. And it was a great experience. We're in this incredible space called Studio BE, which is founded by an artist down there in New Orleans. But the highlight of the trip for me was getting to meet Minnijean Brown-Trickey. Now, Minnijean was a student at Central High School in Arkansas in 1957, when Central High School in Arkansas was ordered by local, by federal courts to integrate. And you probably know, if you know a little bit of American civil rights history that this was one of the first big flash points of integration in the south.
The governor of the state of Arkansas vowed that he would not allow integration to happen, in fact, posted National Guard, the sort of militia of the state, right, the state guardsmen, to stop integration from happening. President Eisenhower called out the Airborne Division and sent federal troops into Arkansas to force federal supremacy under the Constitution of the United States and under the Supreme Court's ruling for the school to be integrated.
Now, those images, and you can probably conjure them in your head right now as I'm describing them, are iconic images of the civil rights moments in American history. The white mobs braying, yelling outside of the steps of Central High School.
The soldiers positioned outside the nine young Black students, who under inconceivable psychic duress and emotional angst and pressure, are trying to go to school, which you take a step back and you think like your first day in a new school, like, that's stressful under any circumstances. So can't even begin to conceive of what that day would be like for the people.
And I got a chance to, when I was down in New Orleans, talk to Minnijean a lot, because she was one of those students. She's in those photos. She was one of the Little Rock Nine, in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. And we got to spend some time together afterwards. And I just was completely absorbed with her and the story that she had to tell, and the life that she's lived after that moment, because obviously, she was a child then and has gone on to live an incredible life.
And I thought in observance of Black History Month this February, that it would be a great opportunity to sit down and talk to someone who has lived it. And again, a reminder that this history is not that long ago. America has only been, you know, what you would call a genuine multiracial democracy in real terms, probably since the Voting Rights Act, so you know, a little more than 50 years, almost 60 years. So the past is not so far removed, and getting a chance to talk to Minnijean was a reminder of that.
So Minnijean, it's just wonderful to have you on the program. Thank you so much.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: And it's absolutely my pleasure.
Chris Hayes: We're going to go back and hear the whole story. But I want to start with a few contemporary things where Central High School in Little Rock had been a little bit in the news recently. And I want to just start with those and then we can work our way back.
So I'm speaking to you the day after the State of the Union address by President Joe Biden. And after that address, the Republican response which there's always someone from the opposite party gives a response, was given by the now governor of Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She, of course, is the daughter of a previous governor of Arkansas, Governor Mike Huckabee. So you know, I guess she comes by it honestly, I guess, being governor of Arkansas.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Well, you know what, I worry --
Chris Hayes: What?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: -- that the United States kind of likes monarchy, right? Because we keep seeing that over and over and over, people's children and yeah, I'm worried about that a little bit.
Chris Hayes: You're saying like the dynastic politics --
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Yes.
Chris Hayes: -- that we see.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Absolutely.
Chris Hayes: It is wild how common it is, right?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Yeah, it's incredibly common.
Chris Hayes: So she was giving the response last night, and it was very, like, sort of dark and very kind of like a lot of like Fox News buzzwords about the radical left trying to force their values on you. But then she did this little riff about Central High School, which was her alma mater, and about how she got to go to an event where the doors were opened in commemoration of integration.
It didn't really come to anything. It was just kind of like, I guess, her version of, you know, speaking to the fact that it was important that that happened, which I guess I'll take in 2023, like, yes, it was good. We integrated Central High. But I don't know if you saw that or not, there is no reason that you would --
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: I didn’t.
Chris Hayes: -- you know, watch the response. But I'm just curious about how you think about a conservative invocation of that moment, in the year 2023.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Well, when I wake up every morning, I'm not sure if I'm in Little Rock in 1957 or not. I look around and I feel same things happening. And I remember that opening of the door, which was President Clinton, Governor Huckabee and the mayor of Little Rock, and it was the 50th anniversary.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: And I'm sure the symbolism was really important. And it was important to me because somebody took a photo of me doing the ugliest cry you could possibly imagine, because it actually was sort of the beginning of when the United States was admitting that Little Rock Central desegregation happened. So she may have seen it in one way. But I saw it as maybe a beginning of maybe looking at the story.
And actually, James Baldwin says history is more beautiful and more terrible than we know, and I think the Little Rock story fits that. It's absolutely horrendous with mob violence, which we keep saying we never had, right, where every day, I said, oh, my goodness, this is the first time we've had mob violence. And I can tell you, no, it isn't. We had it. It was 65 years ago. We just commemorated 65 years in September.
And in my sort of brief speech, I said, guess what, we wouldn't be here if the opposition hadn't happened. If we had been able to walk into that school and dissolve into nine Black kids, into 2,000 white kids, we wouldn't have to commemorate, we wouldn't have to talk about it, because it would have happened in a different way. So it is really about the opposition that made it an important story.
Chris Hayes: I want to talk about another contemporary reference to it, but let's stay with this for a second. So just tell me a little bit, where were you born, and where did you go to school before Central High, and how you ended up being one of the nine kids who went to that school that integrated.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, September 11, 1941. I went to segregated schools, elementary, middle, and grade 10 and high school. It was interesting. There was a Supreme Court decision, and I think I was 12 or 13, or something.
And just thought, oh, okay, well, you know, Jefferson or friends of mine wouldn’t have to, there’d be white schools across the street from Black kids. But they would have to go someplace else to go to school. So that was kind of my thought, oh, Jefferson can go to the school. Jefferson, who turned out to be one of Little Rock Nine. He can go to the school across the street.
Because the whole social conditioning in the United States is that the enemy is outside, and I grew up in the Jim Crow South. But all this is about you live in the best place in the world and all that. And we were hiding under the desk because somebody else was going to attack us, the Soviets or whatever. So that whole thing of it’s always something outside.
And when the school board, obviously, had a plan, and the NAACP filed injunctions and all those things were going, but who paid attention to that? What I did pay attention to was the lynching of Emmett Till. And the reason I did was because he was one month older than I was. And we’re 14 at the same time.
So there's this kind of never been treated with hatred or any of that. And I sort of, as a kid, I decided racism was a disease of old people because they were the ones in the churches and the rallies. And so I figured, oh, they're old people. So it actually, I think, came on the intercom or something.
And it says if you live in the central district and you're interested in going to Central High, sign the sheet. And I did. And actually, it was, it included, I think, my two best friends because we were sort of, after we signed it, we said, oh, we can walk to Central because it's close to where we live.
And I think, I tell that story to young people because it's really important that sometimes, we do things maybe frivolously or without any great intent, and then it turns out to be something else. So I won't say that I was hoping to change the world or any of those things. I thought, okay, white kids are just like me. They're curious, thoughtful, interested, so huh, it won't be a big deal.
Chris Hayes: So you signed up. That's so interesting that your first thought was about the sort of banal convenience, right? Like, your friend can walk to the closer school. You can go to the closer school, like, that will be nice, it will cut down my commute and I don't have to schlep.
What kind of kid were you? Were you outgoing and friendly? Were you shy and retiring? Like, just what was your personality like at that time?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Sometimes I don't think we know who we are, but then --
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: -- based on --
Chris Hayes: Probably never. Yeah.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: -- sort of seeing the photos, so many photos of me during that period, I haven't seen one where I wasn't smiling and where I wasn't skipping or something, which showed that I was outgoing. And I think maybe that was part of the reason that I was targeted with such, huh, somehow, I didn't fit.
I mean, we're going right into it. And I did some research. I watched some documentaries. I wanted to find out before we had this, like (ph), experience. And I feel now that I was so, and I think most of the nine, we were so different from what white kids had been taught we were.
I think we've scared them. I think we freaked them out. I think they were horrified in having to deal with this sort of, they're not like we think we thought they were. I mean, I had a real problem because I thought I was gorgeous, because my parents and the people I knew convinced me of my value in so many ways.
And I was smart, and I was talented. I could sing, so I thought, oh, this Central thing, it's going to be easy.
Chris Hayes: So you were a confident kid. You knew, you were a loved kid. Your parents had convinced you of your value. You signed this sheet after an announcement saying, would you like to go to Central? This is not like, you know, when you read about some of these other, you know, examples, lunch counter, SNCC lunch counter or Rosa Parks, right?
There's like a whole preamble of strategizing, and will this be the right person to be the test plaintiff on this case? You're saying like you signed a form with some of your friends.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: And then did you talk to your parents about it? Like, what was that next step, right? You had to have a conversation with your folks.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Well, the story that I tell is I skipped home and said to my mother, we did skip. And I signed up to go to Central. And it's really good. And I've helped shepherd more than 10,000 kids through the civil rights movement in a group called Sojourn to the Past.
And when I say what do you think, to a group of, say, a hundred high school students or middle school, what do you think your parents would say when you say, I signed up to go to Central? And they’ll say no, and their answers. And I say no, she said, we'll see. And they went, oh, yeah, right, that's the answer. And that's exactly what she said. She said, we'll see. And we did see.
But what I think they thought I could do, I mean, nobody knew it was going to turn out the way it did. Nobody knew the governor was going to put soldiers, or that there was going to be a mob, and that they were going to beat up Black reporters. I didn't know this. And so I think my lesson for young people is you don't have to know what's going to happen.
It's kind of fun to take that step and see what happens, because it can be good and it can be bad, but just do it, right? Just do it for any simple reason. You know, kids say, we don't have a leader, or I'm going to say, oh, you’re the leader. You’re it. You make that decision and be open, and see what happens. So what kind of kid was I? I think never been asked that question, but I think I was kind of fun and outgoing.
Chris Hayes: So your mom says, we'll see. And I got to imagine a million thoughts are racing through her head. She's, you know, a woman who is herself grown up in Jim Crow apartheid in the South. She understands the stakes and the violence and the power of white supremacy. Do you have a conversation with them where they say, okay, we're going to do it? When do you know you're going to be going to Central?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: I don't think we actually talked about it anymore. I think, historically, the range is about a hundred kids signed up.
Chris Hayes: A hundred Black kids?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Yeah, a hundred Black kids. So we had these meetings where they said, well, if you go to Central and you can't participate in any activities, nothing. And I'm sure that turned a lot of kids off because they're athletes. They’re in the band. They're in theater. They're in choir.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: They're in all these things. And they said, well, I'm not going there because you can't do anything. And I could get scholarships based on my band, based on my athletics --
Chris Hayes: Right.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: -- based on all kinds of things. It turns out, we found out that they were going to accept 20 kids. And they obviously did (ph) it or whatever. Everybody claims to have selected us. So that's part of the mythologies that, because I think people have a hard time thinking that young people can think about things as well, and that they can do advocacy on their own behalf.
And so the story gets told that everybody has selected the Little Rock Nine. That's just one of our things. And that's one of the stories. But my thought was, okay, so they say we can't participate in any activities. But after we're there, you know, I'm so talented and so is Melba and blah, blah, blah. That's going to be, we're going to fix that really quickly.
Chris Hayes: They're going to say, I want you to sing in the choir. I want you to be in the play.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Absolutely. Very much, yes. They're going to say, come on, girl.
Chris Hayes: So do you remember your thoughts leading up to the first day? Was it the first day of school? Was it the actual, was it in the late summer?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Actually, I think the first day of school was the first day after Labor Day. And I can't remember the day. And we were told not to come on that day. So we went on the second day. And it was pretty shocking. So you can't see how we were shaking as we're standing there in front of the National Guard who won't let us in.
You can't, thank goodness, you couldn't see us shaking in the still photos. But you could see the wide gaping mouths of women, lots of women and men and grownups who were spewing hatred and crowded around Elizabeth because she took the bus, because she was going to school, okay?
So when you look at history, or even a newspaper story, it leads with Elizabeth Eckford didn't have a phone, so she didn't meet with the other kids. No, no, no, no, that's not the lead of that story. The lead of that story is Elizabeth Eckford was mobbed when she came to school.
So how we frame all these things, too. So anyway, Elizabeth was mobbed. And we were in another place, because she rode the bus to go to school. So the terror (ph), so you know, obviously, we didn't expect. We couldn't. It's the first time, right? So how? There was no formula. There was no thing that said this is what happens when you do this.
There was a school in a small town called Hoxie that desegregated because they didn't want to have two schools, and it just kind of went without incident. So who knows? How do you know what's going to happen? How do you know?
So we're watching this and there went all the freedom and justice for all stuff that had been pushed down my throat for years. It was a form of crushing of any kind of belief that I'd ever had before, that I've never recovered from
I mean, part of the hatred was mixed in with religion. And it was about integration is a sin and it's abomination against God. And it had all that religion mixed up. So, so many of my beliefs that I've had before, they just left me that day. And they stayed that way. I haven't recovered any of that, which is okay because I think it makes me thoughtful. And it keeps me on my toes.
I want to tell you what I've learned that day, when I'm talking about the beauty part, was I saw people who were completely mindless in a mob, who couldn't think. And I said, I will never be persuaded to behave like that, no matter what. And so that was the big lesson I learned that day.
And that's been with me. So I teach non-violence, I'm serious about it. I feel sad for people who are persuaded or incited to do things that don't make any sense. So it was a lesson that I keep.
Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.
Chris Hayes: I have to say, you know, when you and I met, and we spoke about this, one thing that's so striking and it makes perfect sense because of the sheer trauma of this, the horror that you were exposed to, the invective and the pressure and all of it, that it still reverberates in your soul and in your body 65 years later.
Like, I can hear that in you now and it's not surprising. But there's something just profound about hearing it in your voice and in yourself, that this experience lives there in some way.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Well, it lives there, but I can use it. It's so valuable. I can use it with young people. I'm the combo of this crone, of this, you know, old woman --
Chris Hayes: You’re not a crone.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: -- and this beautiful young girl. And these are good things to, I'm happy, I'm glad to have those images. And so I'm the perfect grandmother. And I talk to them about, you know, we feel this stuff. This is in us. It's okay to feel. And sometimes I feel it more than other times. But it's something that I can use.
I have this amazing story. And I don't make anybody feel guilty. The way that I frame it, say, for the third grade kids is, gee whiz, here was a situation and you could be one of the nice kids. You could be one of the mob. You can be one of the mean kids. You could be one of the Little Rock Nine. You could be one of the reporters. Here's a possibility of choice.
And I can tell you, they all say, I want to be one of the nice kids. So when the third grade or the fifth grade, they're excited about the story. And I was telling Doni that a week ago, I got three letters from kids talking about their middle school. They can find me.
They find me. They ask me. So ban all the books you want, they come to me. They ask. The Little Rock Nine get letters from all over the world now. Kids love the story. So I'm not making anybody feel guilty. I think it's an amazing story.
I've gone to this school, one school for 15 years. And they use Little Rock for the whole year because it's about government. It's about the court. It's about the Constitution. It's about all these things. And yet, but don't use it. It's so useful.
Chris Hayes: How many days did it take to get inside the school? And then what was, I mean, you have the shock and the horror and the sort of fight or flight of that first scene, right? This has never been done before. There is this mob arrayed before you. There are soldiers. Eventually, Eisenhower’s sends in the 101st Airborne, and you get inside. That's what gets you into the school, right?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Yeah. And but I think, okay, you have to understand, these images went around the world.
Chris Hayes: I mean --
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Everywhere.
Chris Hayes: Yes, yeah.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: And how do we know? Because we got letters from around the world, the piles of letters. We got hate mail mostly from, I'm not going to say. But we also got letters from everywhere in the world. And we were out for three weeks. There were so many injunctions filed to stop --
Chris Hayes: Of course.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: -- integration. And then there was a federal district judge who ruled that it had to go on, right. And also, I think Eisenhower saw the brutality, though, like, there was one Black reporter with the Black Press who was beaten and it's right there, and you can see it. So they can say it didn't happen, but it's all there. And I think he saw that, and he probably said, oops, this is going around the world and --
Chris Hayes: Yup.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: -- I don't think it looks good. So we got to do something. Now, I've talked to Eisenhower scholars. And one says he was interested in desegregation. And the other one said it was the Cold War. So I'm going to leave myself out of that and assume that he saw, and you got to act. You have to act. You must.
So they came, and the 101st. So it was three weeks. It was three weeks before we got in. And they went in with us. We each had a guard who couldn't go in the classroom, but could walk in the hall with us. And one, somebody sprayed acid in Melba’s eyes. And one guard flushed her eyes out.
And you know, we found out the real brutality when they left. But they kind of kept some of the more horrible things from happening. They couldn't go into the restrooms or into the classroom, either. So it was their presence kind of spoke that we were being protected. And it's funny because, because of the 101st, Central High School inside was the safest place for me ever, because we couldn't go anywhere in the town.
We couldn't. We were being inundated with hate messages, phone calls. So it was kind of safe in this school pretty much for that. They left in October and I say it's because Sputnik went up and everything moved toward, let's get some science here, forget integration. Go home, 101st. We got some other things to do. So I'll tell a story that I think is interesting.
My daughter, Spirit, worked at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site for 11 years, and people came in and disclose things to her. And so she has this huge record of things that people admitted to doing.
And a few years back, a person who had been an Arkansas National Guard said, I can't keep silent anymore. I stopped five girls from them putting Minnijean’s head in the toilet. So sometimes people disclose things, so it’s interesting. I say she knows more than I do. And so we're writing my memoir together.
Chris Hayes: Well, so just one more question about those three weeks. This is now an international story. It's an international scandal. The images are everywhere. You're living at home with your parents. I mean, did you talk during those three weeks while they're talking to the courts, like, do you not want to do this? Like, just what is that, what is your home life like? What are your interactions with your parents? What are they saying to you about what you, as a child, are seeing and being exposed to?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Yeah. I mean, I think they said something like, if you want to go, we're with you. If you don't want to go, we're with you. You get to choose.
Chris Hayes: Yeah, yeah.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: And that was the kind of, when I talk about how you treat your kids, they respected my decision, which was pretty amazing. Part of the court situation, the NAACP, our lawyers were local lawyers. So Wiley Branton being one and Thurgood Marshall. We had the whole legal defense fund on our side for the federal district court.
But Thurgood Marshall was explaining everything. He said this is a constitutional conflict. He treated us with a great deal of respect, too, and we actually worshipped him because he was so gracious. And he treated us with such respect, and explained things. And so we had a crash course in courts.
Chris Hayes: So he's explaining this to you. Your parents are saying, we stand behind whatever choice you want to make. You're like, I want to see this through.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: I want to do this.
Chris Hayes: I want to do this.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: I do.
Chris Hayes: Now, you go in finally after three weeks. Guards are there and you said it's a safe space because the guards are there. They're protecting you, even if they're not in the classroom. They leave in October. Then you're on your own. Now, you're now a student. You're one of nine Black students in Central High in Little Rock.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: When we had the Arkansas National Guard, that was federalized, right.
Chris Hayes: OK.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: So talk me through a little bit of just the day-to-day experience once you have integrated the school and you are now a high school student in this environment, what that is like?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: It was like you just went and you saw them. And the way you sort of justified staying was they don't want me here, so I'm coming. Yeah, go for it. You just behave as bad, do whatever you want, I'm still coming. I will be back. So people say, what? What do you, what? I don't know. I haven't figured that out yet.
What? Why did I keep going? I went because they didn't want me there. And it didn't make sense. And I honestly, I went because I could feel sorry for white kids that seemed not to be able to think. And I went because the social myths had been that white kids were smarter than Black kids. And then I found out, hmm, nope, not even close.
And so it was like learning something every day that contradicted the social myths about us being so different and them being so… no. So it's kind of fun. So it ends up. And I'm sure that if the truth were known about the rest of the nine, and we never told each other what was happening and we certainly didn't tell our parents, okay, because we didn’t, we want to keep going.
So we only kind of started discussing some of the things that happened after 50 years, when we got together. It turns out we all experienced just about the same things. And then people have written books. I think there are four books. And people describe their experiences. And it wasn't a disclosure time. You kind of just kept it to yourself because you didn't want anybody to know.
So that, what I know about bullying and kids who are bullied is that there's a lot of shame attached to it. So part of what happened with the girl’s vice principal, she kind of, if something happened to me that was really drastic, like I got soup thrown on me twice, she kind of would say, well, what did you do? So it was kind of like, I drove them crazy. I know I did. I know I did. And I'm glad.
Chris Hayes: Were any of the students kind --
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: -- or any of them good and not, you know, horrible and bullying and racist?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: I'd say 20 were nice.
Chris Hayes: Twenty of the white students?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: White kids. Yeah. So definitely (ph) each had to probably.
Chris Hayes: And you knew who they were? That was like a known thing of like this small, little tiny group.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: This person will walk well with me in the hallway.
Chris Hayes: Wow.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: This person shared a book with Terrence. This person was in chapel with Jefferson. So the way I’d say it's like 200 really mean kids, 20 nice kids, and 1,800 silent witnesses, the people who stood by and said nothing.
Chris Hayes: Wow. Those numbers are such a profound, that is an incredible summation, right, of good and evil in society --
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: -- and those numbers 200, 20 and 1,800.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Well, the whole idea that there are some photos that I just watched, I tried to be prepared for this by watching myself. And I was in a Glee Club class and there were all these bomb threats, and they had to clean out the lockers every night because there were so many bomb threats.
So there was a bomb threat. And the girls in the Glee Club, and we're singing, and they're smiling, and we're interacting. But I can see around them are these mean looks. So the peer, peer thing, like other people telling you what you can and cannot do, was very powerful. So the kids who are nice, obviously, they got pretty bad treatment, right?
So it's really easy to talk to young people about, you know, be careful, don't let other people tell you how you should be.
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Because later, a person, a boy who had thrown soup on me, sure was something (ph), apologized on Oprah. And I don't know where she dug these people up, but she did. And when he’s, I realized he'd been thinking about this his whole life. I forgot all about him. So we have to be careful what we do when we're 16 because it follows us.
What I say to young people, I have a story about chili, it followed me. No matter what the reason, how it happened, it has followed me. That's what I'm known for, dropping chili on two boys, right? Oh, and it's not going away. So be careful what you do. By the way, there were three 14-year-olds. And the rest of us turned 16 or 15 on the first day and then we all turned 16 during the fall.
Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after we take this quick break.
Chris Hayes: Eventually, you were expelled from school.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: I was. I was.
Chris Hayes: And that’s after, you know, being on the receiving end of all these insults and bullying, and abuse, and soup thrown on you --
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: And attacks.
Chris Hayes: -- and attacks. When did that happen and what was the pretext for?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: It happened in February. I got suspended for dropping chili on these two boys who were slamming into me in the cafeteria. And they treated it like it was a fight. And they said, if you're involved in anything else, you're going to be expelled.
Well, they paid me back for the chili, oh, so much. When David Sontag, the late David, when he threw something, some kind of hot substance on me, they jumped on the tables and did 15 rounds (ph) for Sontag and the cafeteria was ringing with that sound.
I think they’re decided, they were hoping I can do something so they could get rid of me, because I just didn’t, I was irrepressible. I get that now. I didn't understand that then. But I get it now. I mean, I've had 65 years to think about it. And I was irrepressible. And that's a mistake for a Black girl.
There is an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. It's called Girlhood (It's Complicated). And my high school graduation dress is part of that display. And it talks about me being suspended and expelled, and make the connection between Black girls who are expelled and suspended in this time.
And I'm most sure it's because they're irrepressible, OK? That's a no-no. You can't be vivacious and excited. So anyway, so I did. I got expelled. That was the worst thing that ever happened to me.
Chris Hayes: It was the worst thing that ever happened to you?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: Why?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Because it felt like failure.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: And then, also, when I left, they really hated me. They were going to divide. It was going to be divided among eight now, instead of nine, the stuff, the hate and the terror and the brutality. So I failed. I needed to be there to stretch that out.
Chris Hayes: You end up leaving Little Rock all together?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: I did.
Chris Hayes: Why?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Well, that means you get expelled, you can’t, I couldn't go. Well, anyway, I didn't know what to do. But Dr. Kenneth Clark had come to visit the nine and sort of talked to usand just to get to see what was happening. And when I got expelled, he actually came to our house and said, I'm on the board of this school in New York, the New Lincoln School, private progressive school. If Minnijean, she can come and she can live with us. Kate, his daughter and I shared the bedroom.
Chris Hayes: Dr. Clark, just for those folks who don't know, is a legendary Black psychologist --
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Yes
Chris Hayes: -- at that time, who had done pioneering.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who were both --
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: -- psychologists, who had partly use some of their research in the Brown decision. So anyway, my mother said, she has to decide. I didn't really want to go. I had a three-year-old little brother. I was the oldest of the four. I was the babysitter. I was my mom's right-hand girl.
I didn't want to go. But I didn't say what I felt. And so she said, they said, it's up to you. And she didn't say, you should or you shouldn’t. So she said, think about it. And I kind of finally said, okay. So I went to live with the Clark family, and went to New Lincoln School, which was predominantly Jewish.
It was a private progressive school, very affluent families and students. And they were very gracious to me. I couldn't possibly have been educated to the extent that they had been educated. But they were very gracious. And I got to be in the plays. And I got to sing in the assemblies. I got to visit people. I got to know about Judaism. I got to know about the Holocaust.
And I said, whew, OK, so I didn't get that in the Black school or the white school, so pretty miseducated. And so that was an amazing thing to learn about that. And we were doing something like buying bricks, or trees for Israel. So for me, just about everything then and now is am I learning something new? Oh, this is fabulous. A whole new thing I'm learning. This is great.
Also, that sort of Black-white, I call it binary in Arkansas. I mean, I saw people in saris. I met people who were Japanese. Oh, my God, it was like, oh, my goodness, this is how the world should be. And so for my own children, I've insisted that we have friends from every class, every color, every ethnicity, because I was bored to tears, right?
My way of being was to just read. That's how I saw the world back in the day. So I didn't want my kids to grow up like that. I didn't want them to be limited. And so I've done everything. I've worked with immigrant refugee women. I've worked with indigenous peoples.
I’ve worked, oh, it's been fun. I've involved them. And they've gone to demonstrations with me. They've been arrested with me. They've been thoughtful about issues. They have a beautiful picture of being in an oldgrowth (ph) forest demonstration that says, ‘Trees die, we die.’
And it's an iconic photo of my daughters who were like 7 and 5, and I've made sure that they have a sense of social responsibility. But I haven't told them what they should do or what they should think.
Chris Hayes: Well, can I ask, it sounds like at this Lincoln school, there's a degree to which you were thriving, and you were having these new experiences and new horizons, and people were treating you graciously. Were you homesick? You know, you're a teenager.
You've just gone through this trauma. You're now living with these, you know, again, incredibly brilliant psychologists, right? So they're equipped at some level. But you're a long way from home and your family and your kin and your people. Did you miss them?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: I was homesick. I was homesick. And I really missed them (sp?). Yeah, because I was the boss of those kids. And my mom was going to trying to prepare for Teachers College, and I was her babysitter. And so, you know, I had a role in that family. And I missed that role. And I actually never went back to Little Rock to live for 40 years or something.
So they closed the high schools in the ’58, ‘59 year. And that broke up families, especially in the Black community, because white kids could go to the state-funded segregation academies and the “private schools” in air quotes. But there weren't those opportunities for Black kids. They filled up all the rural schools around. But I mean, it destroyed a lot. So I'm sure lots of Black young men went into the military or something.
Research showed that 97 percent of white kids found other schools and only 50 percent of Black kids found. So what happens to them? So yeah, they didn’t have integration that year. But they also destroyed potential for young people. So this game is serious. And it's dark. And it's mean-spirited. And it has consequences.
So why do I hang out, have conversation with as many young people as I can, is I don't want that for our society. I don't want that for them. I don't want them to have those kinds of experiences, although, of course, they do. And with young people, it's like they're teaching me and I'm teaching them. It's the reciprocity that I really like.
And so where does my hope lie? My hope lies in hanging out with them. So part of this thing called Sojourn to the Past project, over 22 years, we've taken 10,000 kids on these really intense interactive history experiences. Started off, it was 10 days, then we go to Birmingham and Selma, Atlanta, and Memphis and all that. And I teach non-violence and talk about non-violence.
They're horrified that they didn't know these stories. And like eight of the people who we start it off with have passed away, because most of the civil rights people are elderly. And they met these kids with love, all colors, all classes, all ethnicities, and talked about non-violence. And so the kids are saying, why didn't I know this? My daughter had an expression, when I was 16, I was failing math, and my mom was saving the world. So that inspires me.
So can I talk about what I call profound intentional ignorance right now?
Chris Hayes: Sure.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: That's a phrase, profound intentional ignorance.
Chris Hayes: Yeah, please.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Hashtag. But I'm trying to challenge people, is this what we want? Is this what we want for our children? Why are we miseducating them, under-educating them? And what's the outcome for that? You know, what's going to happen down the road? It's kind of like they closed the schools so they didn't have desegregation.
So what does it mean for our children when we do these kinds of things?
Chris Hayes: Yeah. There's an incredible echo there, right, that we choose ignorance. You know, Heather McGhee has a great book called “The Sum of Us,” which talks about the Southern towns that had public pools. And rather than integrate them, they filled in the pools.
They just filled in the pool. No one swims. We were at like, we'll take away this public good. It's hot in the South in the summer. People like to go to the pool. We could have a pool, a municipal pool for everyone, but we would rather fill it in with concrete than to share it.
And they closed the schools, right? That's the great American sin. It's the great American sin of white people, frankly, to rather walk away from a thing that we could all share together, and destroy it rather than share it.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Well, so I wrote at the top of my notes for this is “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone” by Heather McGhee because I think she, you know, I had some others, you know, “Caste” and, you know, a whole bunch, “On Tyranny,” which is one of my favorites, by Timothy Snyder. And I think Heather really captured it because she has all these examples.
So you're right, Dr. King's book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” was so philosophically right. Oh, and he could be talking about today. But, of course, all we know about him is dream or whatever content. That's all we’re willing to give, credit him with. So the King papers at Stanford, they're hoping for 14 volumes of his work.
Chris Hayes: Can I ask you maybe a last question to land here?
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Okay.
Chris Hayes: Which is a personal one of just how you, to get back to this theme of healing, which again, I think it feels a little overly, in the wrong hands, could feel a little over-sentimentalized or psychotherapized, or, you know, it’s --
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: No.
Chris Hayes: -- but, you know, in your case, it's like you have made something beautiful and righteous, and profound of a very ugly experience. You've made something beautiful and righteous, and profound in the moment, and you've made something very beautiful and righteous, and profound and educational, and soul-filling for the people that have been lucky enough to know you and learn from you. And if you have insight about how you did that, I would love to hear it.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: I don't have insight, right? I'm trying to write this book and I'm trying to talk about what did I do, what did I think, how did I, it doesn't come. What I think now is I kind of warn people that I feel my feelings. And the kind of concept now is trauma. And I know that outwardly, I do not exhibit the same kind of trauma that Elizabeth Eckford exhibits, who suffers from PTSD, post-traumatic stress. So probably I do, but it's kind of like being at Central.
It's really important that no matter what was happening, they weren't going to make me cry. They weren't going to make me cry there. And some of the things my mom did was she would let me read all night. I mean, she used to say, you got to turn your lights off and go to sleep.
She just let me read. She didn't stop me because she knew that was my solace. And I'm good most of the time. I've been in front of a thousand people and talking, and just feel tears coming down. And I just let them because that's okay. So you get to feel your feelings, but you also need to use this stuff.
I mean, at 81, I'm feeling, oh, my goodness, this is important. I've got to talk fast as long as I can, because it's the fall, right? So I get it. I understand a traumatizing aspect of it. You know, I trained as a social worker, and so has really good therapists with people because --
Chris Hayes: I believe that.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: -- I got it. So I dealt with immigrant refugee women and indigenous people who had also experienced trauma. So I took it and I used it, what my understanding of trauma was, which is a gift. I'm grateful for that, grateful that I got that gift. And so to reframe something and make it useful is how I kind of how I try to think about it.
Like I said, I've got these amazing images of this vibrant, beautiful young woman, and I've got this wisdom. So I could have put them together and they're great. It's fabulous. I was so fortunate.
Chris Hayes: Minnijean Brown-Trickey made history as one of the Little Rock Nine, when she defied racist mobs in her school in Arkansas. She has been a lifelong therapist, social activist, and educator. And it's been an incredible honor to have her on WITHpod. Thank you so, so much.
Minnijean Brown-Trickey: Well, thank you. It's absolutely my pleasure. And I'm one of your fans, I can tell you.
Chris Hayes: Wow. That means a lot.
Well, that was a truly incredible conversation. And I was just so happy to get an opportunity to talk to Minnijean, to talk to her when I met her down in New Orleans and then to have her back on the podcast. And there's so much wisdom and grace and vision in both her experience and the way that she's used that experience in her life. I'm just so grateful to have had a chance to talk to her, and to share it with all of you.
And we'd love to hear what you thought of it. You could tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. Be sure to follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod.
Why Is This Happening? is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia. This episode was engineered by Cedric Wilson, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.
Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.