What struck me most as I listened to her talk with students, and then during our interview, is how well she illustrates the power of story. The Little Rock Nine helped change America in the 1950s, but when Minnijean tells her stories about what it was like to be assaulted physically and verbally by students, teachers, and protesters and to walk through the halls of a school where she was not welcome, her experience offers lessons and inspiration for young people decades later. Stories make history concrete and personal. They help us understand not only what happened but why it happened and what it was like.
Much as I believe in stories, I’m also intrigued by the program she helps to lead that takes young people to visit the places where history happened. Sojourn to the Past connects school-based study of the civil rights movement with visits to key sites and conversations with people who were part of the struggle. As Minnijean explains in our interview, those interactions move both the students and the adults. The program does more than just connect students with history, though. It teaches them about the principles of nonviolence, a challenging but positive way of thinking about human interactions and conflict. A number of students from Youngstown City Schools have participated in the program.
Minnijean’s work is inspiring, and for many, this year’s presidential election seems like evidence that the struggles of the civil rights movement have been redeemed. And yet. Racial segregation is once again common in the U.S., and the achievement gap between white and black students remains a persistent challenge. Tomorrow night, the Ohio Commission on African American Males is holding a hearing as part of a statewide effort to identify and address the problems facing black men. There’s more work to be done. We need Minnijean’s inspiration as much as ever.