In the documentary Journey to Little Rock: The Untold Story of Minnijean Brown Trickey, which has its Canadian premiere on Wednesday at the Sprockets Toronto International Film Festival for Children, there is news footage in 1957, when Trickey, then a fresh-faced 16-year-old schoolgirl, threaded her way through an angry mob to enter the all-white Little Rock Central High. There were eight other black students with her that day, all of whom had volunteered to take the historic step across the racial threshold. They were accompanied by federal troops, after President Dwight Eisenhower intervened when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus sided with local whites who disapproved of integration and called in the National Guard to keep black students out of the school.
The footage reveals shocking hatred. (The screening of the film marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v Board of Education decision, which struck down the prevailing "separate but equal" thesis and ruled that separate educational facilities were, in fact, unequal.) Trickey, however, is spirited, defiant and confident in her prim fifties clothes and bobbed hair: a bright beacon of hope. "I am fascinated by that young woman I see in the footage," she says now. "It is the pure abandon of youth, the idea that everything is possible. You walk into a school like that so innocent. We were just kids. And you walk out, wow, transformed."
The group of black students became known as the Little Rock Nine. It was an event that put Trickey at the heart of the American civil-rights movement, and changed her life forever.
She has been a tireless social activist ever since. In the 1960s, she joined the civil-rights movement, then sweeping the United States. In her late 20s, she married Roy Trickey, a white social activist she met while attending South Illinois University. (The interracial marriage, which ended in divorce, was "not a political statement at the time," she says with a laugh, when asked. "Life just happens.") Together, they moved to Canada, so he could avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. In the northern farming community of Kenebeek, Ont., she raised a brood of six children, five of whom she gave birth to at home. Later, she became involved in the environmental protest at Temagami and worked closely with native people as a social worker.
She lived in Canada for 32 years, before returning to the U.S. four years ago. She recently received the Congressional Gold Medal and is now working on a memoir, tentatively entitled Mixed Blessing: Living Black in North America. The film about her life was the idea of producer Maria Yongmee Shin, a Canadian social worker and budding filmmaker Trickey worked with in Ottawa. The film won the Best of Fest Award at the 2003 Chicago International Children's Film Festival and has since caught the attention of producers in Hollywood, where activist documentaries are all the rage in the wake of Bowling for Columbine.
Looking back to the events of the fifties in Little Rock, Ark., is "interesting and painful," Trickey says. "It's so elusive as to why it had to be that way. I'm still confused, and I think that we have to put something in that space of confusion, " she continues in her thoughtful, measured way. "When you're enslaving all these people, you have to make them seem less than human, not as intelligent," she explains. "It's my struggle, always, to understand so it's manageable."
It was not just Trickey's entry into Little Rock Central High that served as the crucible for her life as an activist. It was her expulsion from the school, six months later, that compelled her, even more, to speak up and have her voice heard.
In February, 1958, Trickey was expelled after a series of incidents, in which she was portrayed as a trouble-maker. The first happened in the cafeteria. "I dropped a bowl of chili on four guys who were pushing me and tripping me as I walked down an aisle," she recalls. The denigration she and the other black students withstood happened on a daily basis, she says. "There was acid-spraying and tripping and spitting and pushing us down stairs and name-calling." After the chili-spilling incident, she and the white students involved were suspended. But then, she says, "there was an intense pay-back period" during which white students taunted her relentlessly. "The girls and boys would follow me for days, stepping on my heels until they were raw." Finally, one day, in front of her home-room class, a student threw a purse at her head. She was going to throw it back, but restrained herself. She put the purse aside, and said, "Leave me alone, white trash." Her teacher heard her. She was expelled.
Didn't she feel it was a cruel double-standard? "Oh yes," she sighs over the phone from Greenville, S.C., where she is on a speaking tour of colleges, many of which are commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education with discussions about race relations and social activism. It also branded her as violent, which was hurtful, because she prided herself on non-violent activism.
The expulsion thrust Trickey into the spotlight and made her famous; someone to watch.
Trickey is almost academic in her analysis of the challenges she has suffered in her life, as if she looks at the emotions as someone else's pain, not her own.
But maybe it's not that she has endured so much, I find myself thinking as I try to decode the puzzling tone in her voice. Trickey is not a victim. There was choice in all her decisions. Rather, it's that she is willing to confront truth, even if it hurts. She puts herself in situations, and by that I mean marriage and motherhood and political protests, that force her to know herself and the unfairness the world can sometimes offer. That takes a certain calm fearlessness, and that's what I hear in her tone of voice.
I ask if anger fuels her work as an activist. "Ah," the 62-year-old replies. "Anger is destructive. It's more about sorrow. Sorrow is natural and it's day to day." Anger is also unproductive, she suggests. "What I learned about injustice made me a better advocate for people, made me more compassionate, made me more kind, I think."
In Journey to Little Rock, there's a segment from the Oprah talk show, when members of the Little Rock Nine were guests. In the audience, a white male alumnus of Little Central High comes forward to say he is sorry for the way he and others treated the black students. Have others ever apologized to her? "That was the only one," Trickey says. Has she forgiven them? "Forgiving is . . . ," she hesitates, thinking through her response. "Well, let's put it this way," she says after a pause. "I couldn't possibly carry all this weight for all these years. One of my lessons is that you have to let it go and transform it into something."
Still, for all her courage to bring about change, there's disappointment. "Brown v Board of Education wasn't implemented," she states. "The idea of white supremacy and black inferiority is hard to dismantle. After emancipation, segregation was something all the thinkers and everybody worked together on. It was a strategic and very well-oiled machine. With Brown v Board of Education, that kind of action didn't happen. That's my disappointment. Segregation is now based on neighbourhoods," she continues. "And my challenge is now to say, 'Let's work on equality in education. Let's not leave inner-city schools to fall apart.' " When she speaks to college students, their spirit for change revitalizes her. "I don't think we're that docile as a society," she says. "I don't know if there will be a movement soon," she says. "But conditions are such that it will emerge."
So does she have peace in her life of fighting the world's wrongs? "Yeah, I do," she replies confidently. "Because that's how we have to live. We have to have peace with whatever it is."
Journey to Little Rock: The Untold Story of Minnijean Brown Trickey will be presented at the Isabel Bader Theatre, 93 Charles St. W. in Toronto, on Wednesday at 7 p.m. (Tickets: 416-968-3456). Minnijean Brown Trickey will join the audience after the screening to speak about social activism.