Monday, September 25, marked the 66th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The group of Black students known as the "Little Rock Nine" made history when they walked through the doors of the previously all-white school, despite physical and verbal abuse from their peers and adults alike.
When the group returned to the school earlier this week to commemorate the anniversary, its members slammed the state for policies that erase the history they helped make.
The Little Rock Nine share a powerful message
However, Minnijean Brown Trickey told audience members that their group never intended to make history. Many of them simply desired to go to a "beautiful school," as any teenager would have.
We thought we could walk to Central. It was close enough. And it was also called the most beautiful high school in America, so who wouldn't want to go," she said. "I think people would like to think we made this deep dark decision about how we would change the world. I don't think so."
The nine students -- Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals -- took the first step to desegregate the school in 1957. In 2023, Arkansas joined Florida in limiting African American history lessons in public schools.
In August, during the first days of the 2023-2024 school year, the state declared that the Advanced Placement African American Studies course would not count for credit toward high school graduation. The Arkansas Department of Education claimed in a statement that the course is "not a history course" and contains "prohibited topics."
Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders mandated that state curriculum undergo review at the beginning of the year after banning "critical race theory" in public schools and universities. Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines U.S. history through the lens of racism and experiences of Black Americans. Conservatives have latched onto the college-level term in recent years, accusing lower schools of using it to indoctrinate young children.
At the Little Rock Nine's Monday panel, Elizabeth Eckford said of the decision: "Suppressing knowledge does not serve us well."
Terrence Roberts recalled the abuse he experienced from his peers when the group first enter Central High School 66 years ago, who also aimed to suppress the knowledge and education of Black students.
"Someone asked me once in terms about being at Central, 'what would you have added to that experience if you could?'" he shared. "I said I would have demanded at any given school day the nine of us and the kids intent on beating us up during that day would sit down together at a table and we would have a conversation."