Revisiting the Little Rock Chili Incident In 1958, a black girl at Little Rock's Central High School spilled some of her lunch on a white boy, nearly causing a riot and changing both of their lives forever. Exactly 50 years later, we look back on this key moment in civil rights history.
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Revisiting the Little Rock Chili Incident

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Revisiting the Little Rock Chili Incident

Revisiting the Little Rock Chili Incident

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Fifty years ago today, a small incident in a high school cafeteria almost caused a riot and it forever changed the lives of two people.

Here's our colleague Alex Chadwick now with his latest story from Little Rock, Arkansas about the struggles over integration in that city.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Little Rock Central High School now. The building still looks like it did back then, but the students don't. It's almost equally black and white now, but back then with 2,000 kids just nine were African-Americans. It looked different then, but it must have sounded about like a lunch room does today.

(Soundbite of lunch room)

CHADWICK: Then the sound changed. There was a clatter. Maybe a dish broke. Because of what happened.

Ms. MINNIJEAN BROWN-TRICKEY (Little Rock Nine): I dropped my tray with the chili and the roll and a milk on these two guys.

CHADWICK: That is Minnijean Brown-Trickey. And this is Dent Gitchel.

Mr. DENT GITCHEL (Lawyer): I was the recipient on the back of my head of a tray with a bowl of chili on it that Minnijean Brown dropped.

CHADWICK: Minnijean and Dent were both 16, both students, and really both race pioneers in the nation's civil rights struggle. At Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, this was the first try at integration.

Mr. GITCHEL: I've read time and time again - and she has too - that she threw a bowl of chili on a white boy who was harassing her.

Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: The way it gets told is really kind of not how it had happened, but - oh, well. People love that - the version that I dumped a bowl of chili on that guy's head.

CHADWICK: Today, 50 years after that school lunch, Minnijean Brown-Trickey and Dent Gitchel will tell their version of what happened.

But first, some background.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: In September 1957, nine black students in Little Rock entered the previously all-white Central High School. Minnijean was among them.

(Soundbite of crowd)

CHADWICK: There were large, ugly crowds outside the school for week's -segregationist whites. They screamed epithets at the black students as they came and went.

(Soundbite of crowd)

CHADWICK: By December, the crowds outside were gone and so were the news cameras, but inside the tension got worse and worse.

As the days went on, Minnijean Trickey says, the harassment from the white kids grew. Words at first, and then more than words - every day, in the halls, between classes, going to assembly, something was going to happen.

Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: You're being hit and kicked. And some of the boys wore these heel plates and toe plates so they could kick pretty hard.

CHADWICK: It wasn't all the white kids. Most of them didn't harass Minnijean and the others or offer any help either. But enough of the whites did join in the real torment to make life just miserable for the blacks. And lunch, always a chance to get at them. In the pinched walkways between the rows of tables, it was building and building to a moment that Dent Gitchel remembers clearly.

Did you ever join in that?

Mr. GITCHEL: No, absolutely not.

CHADWICK: Here is Dent's memory, and Minnijean's, of what happened at lunch in Little Rock 50 years ago today.

Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: I was holding the tray above their heads because I'm going through a narrow - like in a cafeteria.

Mr. GITCHEL: There were some guys harassing her along the aisle. Some people would refuse to move their chairs. And I think maybe somebody kicked a chair into her.

Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: Just kicking the chair.

Mr. GITCHEL: I tried to move my chair in a little bit.

Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: So I just dropped the tray.

Mr. GITCHEL: I felt something warm running down my right shoulder.

Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: At first, chili splattered and...

Mr. GITCHEL: There was chili on my shirt. Pandemonium broke loose in the cafeteria at that moment.

At about the time we got up to the principal's office, Minnijean also arrived to report the incident.

Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: When I got to the girl's vice principal, she asked me, did I do it on purpose. And I said it was accidentally on purpose because I really hadn't understood it. It just - and even when I describe it, my hands opened like that. I don't know if it was on purpose or not. It's just - I did just open my hand. And I scurried out as quickly as I could, scared to death.

CHADWICK: The school sent Dent home to change his clothes. He was back that afternoon. Minnijean got suspended for six days. And two months later, she was gone. She would finish high school in New York. Dent Gitchel went on to become a lawyer and a law professor.

Mr. GITCHEL: In many ways, Alex, it was a positive thing because it opened my mind. You know, it started the process of changing my attitudes on a whole lot of things.

CHADWICK: For Minnijean, Little Rock was where she learned this lesson: she could not be perfect the way everyone asked her to be - the people who needed her as a symbol for civil rights, and curiously, the racists who taunted her every day.

Ms. BROWN-TRICKEY: You have to be perfect to come to our imperfect school, which is the nature of racism. You can't measure up. We'll make sure you don't measure up and we'll do everything to keep you from measuring up for - for as long as this country exists, from then to now. And we'll do that so well that you'll think it's your own fault.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Minnijean Brown-Trickey went on to become a teacher, a social worker, an activist and a mother. She and Dent Gitchel didn't see each other again for decades, until they met and got reacquainted two years ago in Little Rock, at a chili cook-off.

CHADWICK: For DAY TO DAY, this is Alex Chadwick.

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