LITTLE ROCK, Ark. >> When she saw images unfold from a deadly white supremacist rally this summer in Virginia, Minnijean Brown Trickey immediately thought about the angry mob she and eight other black students faced when they integrated an all-white high school in Little Rock 60 years ago.
“That triggered me so much and watching the mindless mob action just touched me, and I thought, ‘This is 60 years later. I can’t believe this happened in this time,’” Trickey said Friday, referring to the violence that erupted at a rally of white nationalists opposed to the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“So where did I see it last? In Virginia or wherever people coalesce into mindless violence,” she added.
Trickey and the seven other surviving members of the “Little Rock Nine” — who were escorted by federal troops into Little Rock’s Central High School in September 1957 — gathered at the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service for a joint news conference to kick off a series of events commemorating the desegregation anniversary. Some of the surviving members said 60 years ago, they tried to focus more on having the opportunity to attend the school rather than the mobs screaming threats and insults at them.
“The crowd was there, but I ignored them,” Carlotta Walls LaNier said. “It was ignorance, in my view, that was across the street in all of the harassment and name-calling and all of that sort of stuff. But I just dismissed it, to be honest with you. I just wanted to go to school.”
The school was the focus of a showdown over integration for three weeks as Gov. Orval Faubus used the National Guard to block the nine black students from enrolling in the high school, three years after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared segregated classrooms unconstitutional. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent members of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to control the angry crowds and escort the students into the school on Sept. 25, 1957.
“When we got there and saw the soldiers and bayonets and all that, for me, a light went on inside my head that this was obviously something more important than my going to class,” Ernest Green said. “And if this was that big a deal, I want to see it through.”
When asked what she would now say to her teenage self who was facing the mob outside the school, Melba Pattillo Beals said she would want to reassure young Melba.
“You will be OK. You will see your colleagues when you’re 75 and they will be alive and well, too,” she said. “You will be blessed to have them in your life. It’s all going to be OK, as long as you follow the rules, as long as you have compassion for all.”
Among a series of events planned throughout the city, former President Bill Clinton will mark the school’s desegregation Monday with a ceremony at the school.
Green said the nine students formed a permanent friendship when they integrated Central High, calling it a club with a short membership period.
“You had to be there on the 4th of September to have joined it and on the 25th it was sealed, so we were forever united,” he said.