The world is small. Our experiences constantly echo one another. We learn from each other, from successes and failures, from wars, leaders, freedom struggles and social movements. Sometimes the connections are subtle and sometimes they are right in front of us.
On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday when I was 12 my father took me to the Uptown Theater to see Mississippi Burning. If my sister or my mother were there, I apologize, because what I remember is him and me, Gene Hackman and Willem Defoe, and the story of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the violence, and my keen interest and fear. I don’t think that was the single moment when I got interested in civil rights history, I don’t know that I can pin down a moment, but it certainly sticks in my mind. In high school I sang along to the theme song to Eyes on the Prize when we watched it in history class and wrote a paper for another class called “With All Deliberate Speed?” about the language in the of Brown v. Board decision. My interest in the civil rights movement continued through college and when my friend Caroline put forth her thought that if not born in the mid-seventies, she would have loved to live in Victorian England, I always thought I would have loved the chance to be in my twenties during the Civil Rights Movement, to sit on the bus during the Freedom Rides.
So a couple months ago, when I had coffee with an American woman working here for a few months and she casually mentioned her mother, maybe I had heard of her, Minnijean Brown, she was one of the Little Rock Nine, I nearly fell off my chair with excitement. Someone from my history book, who I have read about and talked about has a daughter and I'm having coffee with her?! And Minnijean Brown was coming to Cape Town. Since I work with an organization that works with history teachers, I was able to connect them. So it was that two weeks ago, I found myself sitting at a table here in Cape Town surrounded by teachers and a few students, listening to Minnijean Brown Trickey share her memories and experiences as one of the Little Rock Nine. I was so excited to meet her, this was Minnijean Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine. And I was listening to her in South Africa.
It turns out that Minnijean Brown was the same age as Emmett Till. She watched him die in Mississippi before she fought battles for him and Black youth across the U.S. – battles that she perhaps never intended to fight. As this icon of history spoke, I was struck by her humility. She consistently emphasized that what is extraordinary is in fact ordinary. That she was just a girl who wanted to go to a school with great books and science facilities, that she did not set out to transform a town or a country, simply to get the education she deserved. “It’s always simple and it’s always about just plain people,” she said. “It’s not about having extra bravery or courage, it’s about being a regular person. We were 14 or 15 so we didn’t have any good idea.”
As she entered the school, she never imagined the vitriol and hatred she would get from some students. “I couldn’t imagine anyone hating me,” she said. She thought in a couple weeks or a month, the tension would die down. Another reason why she was not so concerned about racism at Central High she said, was because, “I thought this is about old people and these kids must think like me.”
I remember learning about the effort of the Little Rock Nine to get into Central High, but never about what happened to them once classes started. She said there were about 20 nice kids in the school, 100 bad kids and 1900 kids who said nothing, were “silent witnesses.” I thought about the kids I have interviewed about the xenophobia attacks and how many of them may have been silent witnesses. How often have I been one?
MinniJean was eventually expelled for calling six girls “white trash” after they hit her and threw at her a purse filled with six combination locks. She ended up finishing high school in New York, at a primarily Jewish school where she was “furious” to find out that no one in Little Rock had taught her about the Holocaust. I would imagine at that time it wasn’t really part of the curriculum in Little Rock, or many places in the U.S.
She was and still is a fighter. “The punishment is great for people who think for themselves and go against the belief system,” she said. “Does that happen here?”
It was this question that caused me to look around the room and wonder who these teachers were. I’d met many of them before. In struggles and movements, there are some names we know or our history books tell us – Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, the students of the Soweto Uprisings in 1976, Hector Pieterson, Joe Slovo, Walter Sisulu and of course Nelson Mandela. It may be cliché, that term unsung heroes, but as I sat there, listening to this dialogue, I wondered where some of these teachers had been during their struggle. Were they students fighting to learn in their own language? Were they in detention? Prison? Were they young believers of Mandela or Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness? If I have learned anything in my time here it is that everyone has a story. What are there’s? The history of these history teachers. I have been privileged to be in workshops when a few of these teachers shared some of their stories. But what of the others?
Yesterday, a long day of shooting in the sun ended over scrapbooks of old articles and photos from the eighties. The parents of one of the students in my new film, Becca, were activists during apartheid. Yesterday afternoon, we planned to just do an interview with Becca outside and then film her and her family together. Nothing too profound. Since Becca references her parents in the film and how they are a big part of what inspires her to want to make a difference in the world, my cameraman and I thought it would be cool to see old photos from her parents back in the day. Of course, they didn’t really stop to take photos at that time, however her father has three scrapbooks of newspaper clippings. So it was I found myself listening and filming as Becca and her mother went through these scrapbooks. And so I come back to my thought from above – everyone here has a story. One article inspired Becca’s mother Jane to tell the story of a particular night of riots and protests in Crossroads when she was worried about her husband and his safety. It was not an unusual feeling in those days, but the irony that night, it turned out, was that the Security Police came for Jane and detained her for three months. I have to thank Jane for going through the scrapbooks and her memories and for sharing these stories with us – this journey down memory lane was not particularly enjoyable for her and I imagine not exactly easy either.