Confronted by an angry mob hurling rocks and death threats, 15-year-old Minnijean Brown-Trickey pushed her way through the crowd, only to be stopped by National Guardsmen.
The year was 1957. And behind the guardsmen stood Little Rock Central High School, which had resisted desegregation since the Supreme Court ruled public school segregation unconstitutional three years earlier.
Brown-Trickey and eight other students, known together as the Little Rock Nine, entered the school weeks later, after President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to escort them. The event proved a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.
More than 60 years later, as racial tensions grip the nation, Brown-Trickey and other members of the Little Rock Nine question whether their struggles have borne fruit.
“I’ve just been so sad about whether my life was worth anything because it doesn’t seem like things have changed, and I’m sure a lot of people feel that way,” Brown-Trickey said from her home in Vancouver, British Columbia. “I got pushed back to Emmett Till, and growing up in Jim Crow, and Central (High School) and being arrested as an environmentalist. Every aspect of my life has just come forward and it’s just sorrow.”
Other members of the tight-knit Little Rock Nine echoed her sentiments.
“After 78 years of life, in all these years of fighting the same battle, what am I doing? Isn’t it supposed to be better than this?” said Melba Patillo Beals from her home in San Francisco.
But for Terrence Roberts, another member of the group, the turmoil surrounding George Floyd’s death is predictable. He doesn’t see today’s protests as a new era but as ongoing warfare.
“You can’t separate it into time periods, as if it’s changed,” said Roberts. “It hasn’t.”
Roberts, 79, a former assistant dean at UCLA, has continual conversations about race with his daughters and grandchildren, now teenage boys. To move forward, he said he believes the country must make a serious commitment to education.
“Human beings have the capacity to choose to change. We could do it if we wanted, we just haven’t mustered the will to do it,” Roberts said. “If what you already know hasn’t moved you to change, then change what you know.”
Brown-Trickey believes national outrage over Floyd’s death is not enough. As a social rights activist who teaches children non-violence through speeches and seminars across the world, she rails against the United States’ “rotten education” system mired in inequality.
“There doesn’t seem to be national shame about social conditions in this country,” she said.
Daily images of police pushing back protesters with excessive force have also resulted in a surge of traumatic memories for some members of the Little Rock Nine.
Patillo Beals still bears scars from assaults she endured from classmates. She vividly remembers having acid thrown in her eyes while at school. These memories have been hard to dismiss recently.
She points to President Donald Trump’s recent tweet that protesters “would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen” had they breached the White House fence.
“‘Come on over the fence, and we’ll use dogs’ – really?” she said. “I heard that when I was 8. I heard that when I was 7. I heard that when I was 6.”
But the Little Rock Nine see stark differences between the Floyd protests and what they experienced more than 60 years ago. Social media, they say, has allowed today’s activists to quickly coalesce and spread their message.
“We didn’t have Facebook, and we didn’t have social media,” Brown-Trickey said. “You can cast a wider net for people to listen and participate.”
Added Patillo Beals: “What’s different is the variety of people at those marches, and that is sweet sunshine from heaven to me,” she said.
What hasn’t wavered for Patillo Beals is where true power lies: political representation. She wants to see voter registration tables alongside protesters.
“Your marching gets you the attention, but you’re better off if you back it up with something,” she said, referring to voting.
Despite violent police crackdowns on protesters, Little Rock Nine members see rays of hope amid the turmoil roiling the country.
Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest member, lauds the global attention cast on today’s protesters. For six decades she has held onto letters of support she received from across the world – from Denmark and Africa and other places – when the Little Rock Nine made headlines.
“I have hope. We have support around the world. The support from people around the world helped us (in 1957),” LaNier said.
Patillo Beals said she also finds images of hope in the unrest.
“I am impressed by the numbers. I hate that the numbers come when we face Covid, but the numbers are there, clearly, when you look to Oregon and you see all of these people marching over that bridge,” Patillo Beals said. “That to me says this is a wake-up call, and more people woke up this time than before.”