MLK Day celebration to hear from four of Little Rock Nine school integrationists

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

This year's Mid-Michigan MLK Day of Celebration will focus not only on the work of Martin Luther King Jr., organizers say, but will also recognize the Little Rock Nine 65 years after they integrated one of the largest all-White high schools in the country.

In 1957, the Little Rock Nine were Black students who desegregated Little Rock Central High School, despite attempts by the governor of Arkansas and many others to stop them from attending. Four members of the nine — Ernest Green, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Dr. Terrence Roberts and Minnijean Brown-Trickey — will be interviewed by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II during the Monday program.

The celebration's theme this year is "In the long run, justice finally must spring from a new moral climate," a line written by King to President Dwight Eisenhower to applaud the president's decision to send federal troops to help desegregate the school after mobs and the Arkansas National Guard tried to keep them out.

“Testament: The Little Rock Nine Monument” honors the courage of the nine African American students who began the process of desegregating Little Rock’s public schools in 1957. Located on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol, the memorial features bronze sculptures of the nine students, along with plaques bearing quotations from each of them.

People are never too young to get involved, as demonstrated by the Little Rock Nine, who were as young as 14 when they started at the high school, said Elaine Hardy, chair of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Mid-Michigan.

Brown-Trickey, now 80, told The Detroit News she didn't realize what integrating the school would entail when she signed up, as she "couldn't see why it would be any different" to go to school with White students. 

"I thought segregation was from the old people," she said.

But when she got to school on the first day and saw a "mob of people, screaming hate and obscenities," telling her that integration was a sin, "that'll knock your socks off, make you realize some things very quickly," Brown-Trickey said. The Little Rock Nine was blocked from entering the school on the first day of classes by the Arkansas National Guard, working on order from Gov. Orval Faubus. 

When students tried again to attend classes a few weeks later, they were escorted in by the Little Rock Police Department, but the police later took the students out of the school to avoid to a mob of hundreds starting a riot outside. Eisenhower eventually sent federal troops two days later, who stayed at the school for the rest of the academic year.

King advocated for the students and even came to the graduation ceremony for Green, the first Black person to graduate from Little Rock Central. King was still relatively early in his activism career at that point, Brown-Trickey said, having led the Montgomery bus boycott but not some of the more iconic events of his career.

Minnijean Brown-Trickey was one of nine students who helped to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in 1957. She told The Detroit News that she hoped Monday's MLK Day Celebration would help people understand that Martin Luther King Jr.'s message went beyond his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Brown-Trickey now lives in Vancouver, Canada, and dedicates her time to working with kids. She was honored to be included in the Mid-Michigan event, she said, because much of King's message was about sharing what is possible if everyone works toward it. Brown-Trickey and the other students shared an admiration and respect for King, one that his wife later told her he returned.

Brown-Trickey said she hopes others will watch the program and take away that King's philosophies were well beyond his "I Have a Dream" speech. She wants others to know what is possible with activism, she said.

"We're old now, but we have to let people know that this activism is of a lifetime," Brown-Trickey said. "We can see the results, and we can get pleasure from activism and taking responsibility for our society. We can do it, and it has to be done by us."

Hardy, the commission chair, said the goal of the event is to honor King's legacy and have a chance for people to learn from others who have helped make a difference in their communities.

"I cannot wait for the community to have a chance to hear from them," Hardy said. "They are inspiring and insightful, and I think what they have to say will challenge us as a community to look at our progress and see where we are, particularly for the young people in our community."

Monday's event will include messages from elected officials, recognition of students who won scholarships through the commission's essay contest, and musical performances, including one by Candice Glover, an R&B singer who won the 12th season of "American Idol."

The event will be held remotely for the second year because of the pandemic. But Hardy said she hopes it will still be an inspiration for the as many as 44,000 people the commission expects to reach between the broadcast on several local TV stations and online.

The celebration will be broadcast starting at 7 p.m. on WILX (NBC) and WLNS (CBS). It will also be aired on the commission's website and YouTube channel.

Twitter: @Hayley__Harding