The promise of equality contained in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, might have remained little more than a promise were it not for people like Melba Pattillo Beals.
At the age of 15, Beals was chosen as one of what would become the “Little Rock Nine” — nine African-American teenagers selected because of their excellent grades and attendance to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.
Not many in Little Rock wanted the high school integrated, of course, and for Beals and the other eight students, that meant daily walking a gauntlet of angry adults outside the school who threatened to kill them and spending days inside a schoolhouse where they were harassed and abused relentlessly by white students who didn’t want them there.
Beals had acid thrown in her eyes, was kicked and punched on a regular basis and was even followed everywhere by a boy whose sole job seemed to be stepping on her heels wherever she went, leaving her with damaged ankles to this day.
She would later describe the school as “a hellish torture chamber” in her book, “Warriors Don’t Cry.”
“Today, if I let the memories flood in and listen closely… I can hear the click-clack of leather boots — boots worn by soldiers of the 101st Airborne, dispatched to escort us past the raging mob. I hear the raspy voices of their leaders commanding, “Forward march …’
“I got up every morning, polished my saddle shoes, and went off to war. … It was like being a soldier on a battlefield,” she wrote.
The soldier assigned to protect her even instructed her that she had to become a soldier herself in order to get through the year. Never let the enemy see what you are feeling, he told her.
“At the time I had no idea of the impact or importance of our successful entry and very difficult year as students inside Central High,” Beals wrote. “It would turn out that our determination to remain in school, despite having to tread through a jungle of hatred and human torture from segregationists, would help to change the course of history and grant access to equality and opportunity for people of color.”
Beals spent just one year at Central High — the school was shut down the following year in order to avoid any further integration — and she moved to California to finish high school. She would later attend San Francisco State University, earn a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, marry and have children.
Now 72 and retired, Beals lives in Marin County, where she spent the latter part of her career teaching at Dominican University.
On Saturday, she was the keynote speaker at a gathering in the Brunelle Performance Hall at Davis High School — a gathering during which she shared the stage with 11 Davis students who spent a good chunk of their summer gathering and studying data on race.
The students, who ranged from eighth-graders to high school seniors, are Leadership in Diversity Student Research Scholars, a group that for 10 years has been looking at causes and solutions for achievement and discipline gaps between ethnic and racial groups in Davis, as well as race relations among students.
Beals praised the students for their work, saying she was astounded by their efforts.
“I didn’t know anybody was letting the young people solve these issues,” she said. “You are moving us forward.
“The work you are doing will be felt for generations,” she added. “It made me cry, and made my spine tingle.”
Supported by faith
Before a full house at Brunelle — packed with DHS students, teachers and staff, as well as many community members — Beals spoke of her experiences at Central High and how she got through them by relying on her faith. She would need it.
“When I went to Central High, I did not anticipate there would be people with ropes outside wanting to hang me,” she said. “Our parents did not expect we would be treated that way.”
Her whole life, she said, she was taught to respect adults and authority, and suddenly she was encountering adults who wanted to kill her.
All of it took a toll, she said.
“There was a point I started to think about suicide. I went to my grandmother. She said, ‘Good idea, my dear. Think about how happy the segregationists will be … because you have given up.’ ”
Needless to say, she didn’t. And she credits her mother and grandmother with getting her through.
Her mother, Beals said, told her years later that she had had no idea just how much Beals would suffer as part of the Little Rock Nine.
“And we never told our parents everything that was going on,” Beals said Saturday.
But she would later spend many hours in therapy, she said, dealing with the post-traumatic stress of 1957, and admitted she probably would not let her own child go through what she had to endure.
“I hope nobody else has to experience what I did,” she said.
Book helped her heal
During exchanges with the audience on Saturday, Beals talked of the importance of nonviolence, of letting go of anger and embracing forgiveness. Writing her book, Beals said, was particularly healing for her.
She and the other Little Rock Nine have stayed close, she said, calling and emailing each other and coming together on occasion.
Theirs was a bond forged in the toughest of circumstances and the group has returned on occasion to Central High, the first time in 1987, 30 years after they left. It was a visit Beals described in “Warriors Don’t Cry” as one in which the ghosts of the past encountered a very changed present day.
As the main entrance to the school came into sight that day, Beals wrote of “a familiar twinge.”
“A cold fist clamps about my stomach and twists it into a wrenching knot, and just at that instant, it is October of 1957, and I am a helpless, frightened fifteen-year-old, terrified of what awaits me behind those doors. What will they do to me today? Will I make it to my homeroom? Who will be the first to slap me, to kick me in the shin, or call me nigger?
“Suddenly one of the huge front doors swings open. A black teenager impeccably dressed in morning coat and bow tie emerges. He is slight, perhaps five-feet-six-inches tall, with closely cropped hair, wearing wire-rimmed spectacles. He bows slightly as we approach.
“Good morning. I am Derrick Noble, president of the student body. Welcome to Central High School.”
But as much as things have changed, much still needs to be done, Beals said.
“I have achieved so much: more than one hundred awards for courage, including this country’s highest award … the Congressional Gold Medal; doctoral degrees and status as a professor and international speaker,” she writes in “Warriors.” “And yet, when I go house-hunting, I am often denied the chosen location because to the person selling the house I am just another “maid,” “Aunt Jemima,” or second-class citizen, as always.
“Until I am welcomed everywhere as an equal simply because I am human, I remain a warrior on a battlefield that I must not leave.”
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy