NEWS: Civil Rights Torchbearer Minnijean Brown Visits USN

by Halle Greenbaum ’21

Published on May 16, 2019

Minnijean Brown was one of the nine African American high school students chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. University School has the pleasure of hosting Minnijean Brown each year, and the fifth graders have the pleasure to meet with her after they finish the book Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals.

Warriors Don’t Cry is a reflection of Melba Pattillo Beals’ time at Central High School as one of the nine African Americans in this otherwise white high school As a part of the fifth grade curriculum, they combine English and Social Studies to fully immerse themselves in learning about the Civil Rights Movement. During this time, they read Warriors Don’t Cry and while learning about the sit ins, bus boycotts, and school integrations in Social Studies.

Minnijean Brown’s yearly visits provide a unique experience for students to even better understand her experiences due to the lack of formality of her lecture style. Her lively personality provides a comfort to students, which allows them to ask their questions without hesitation and nerves.  

This year, Minnijean Brown visited on Apr. 25. She met with the fifth graders in the morning, and she also held a lunch and learn where high school students had the opportunity to either hear her speak again or for the first time.

John Kleiner, one of the fifth grade English teachers, hears Brown speak every year, and each time she has a different effect on him. He believes it is important for his students to meet with her as a conclusion of their Civil Rights unit.

 “She makes them feel good about themselves. She validates them as intelligent, informed human beings who have the power to make a difference in the world. Talking to her gives a face to the civil rights movement and to the struggle at Central High. She makes the events that they read about in Warriors Don’t Cry real – not just words on a page,” he said. “They hear her perspective on the events that took place at Central High during the 1957 integration Even though she, Melba, and the others were all part of that experience, they each saw it from a different perspective.”

Minnijean Brown shows the fifth graders the effect they can have on the world. She teaches them from her personal experience. Kleiner says this is the largest lesson she can teach them.

“It’s often children, the young people, who have the greatest impact. They are not powerless. They can stand up for others by being an ally, not a silent witness. They can stand up for what’s right and  advocate for justice by writing to politicians or being vocal in other ways. It’s all about supporting the victim, not giving attention to the bully,” Kleiner said.

After she spoke, the fifth graders were asked, “What does Minnijean Brown teach you?” There answers vary between brief one word answers to more complex sentences; however, that is the goal. She is able to teach each person something different.

Claire Ward, one of the fifth graders, said Minnijean Brown impacted her by teaching her the lesson that a person does not only better themselves, they fight to better everyone.

“That she just didn’t do it for herself, she did it for everyone else that would benefit from it,” she said.  

While Ward was able to take away the value of selflessness, some of her peers believe the biggest impact Minnijean has on them is to never give up, to forgive, to keep fighting, and to not let fear stand in your way.

This is what makes Minnijean Brown so powerful; her impact is unique to each fifth grader who listens to her. These lessons do not only relate to the Civil Rights Movement either. Brown shows them what it means to be passionate about something and what they should do to channel that passion.

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