The integration of Central High School, in Little Rock, Arkansas is one of the most significant moments in American civil rights history. The general events of the story are well known; NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall’s legal victory in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka to integrate America’s schools, the political battle between Arkansas’ Governor Orval Faubus and President Dwight Eisenhauer and the crusade by the local NAACP president, Daisey Bates, to organize the local effort to shepherd the 9 black students through the ordeal. One of the personal accounts of the 9 students was written by Melba Pattillo Beals in 1994. Her story is of the daily trauma she and the other 8 students suffered their first year of integration at Central High School against the back drop of what southern life was like during that period. Early in the book she describes how a white man attempts to rape her, as she walks home from school, in retaliation for the court decision to integrate city schools. Melba is saved by a neighborhood friend and together they survived the attack. When she described her ordeal to her mother and grandmother, she reveals how the concept of rape was totally new to her.
Throughout the south Black students had to travel farther to attend schools with fewer resources and taught by teachers who were paid less than white teachers. The NAACP had strategically been filing cases against educational institutions, at all levels, to enroll Black students in segregated schools. After several challenges to the Supreme Court order to desegregate, schools were ordered to begin integration with all deliberate speed.
Without her mother’s permission Melba entered her name in a lottery to become one of the first Black students to attend the all white Central High School in Littler Rock. When Melba’s name was chosen her mother was furious. The racist social order in the south was a constant reality and the dangers awaiting Melba were now magnified.
The local leader of the NAACP was Daisy Bates. She and her husband owned a newspaper and she was responsible for organizing the transition of the nine students into Central High School. Attendance on the first day was prevented by rioting whites and Arkansas National Guard Troops. President Eisenhower was forced to deploy the 101st Airbourne to ensure the students admission and protect them in the school.
Melba’s personal account is intimate and dramatic. She describes her experience of the daily attacks by white students and indifference of school administrators during her first year. She was pushed down stairwells, had chemicals thrown in her face and physically assaulted on a daily basis. Particularly hurtful was the reaction among her former classmates and neighbors. Because she wasn’t able to socialize with friends from her former school Melba wasn’t able to maintain the same friendships she had developed as a child. She wasn’t invited to social affairs as before and she felt abandoned. And some of her neighbors felt threatened at loosing the modest security a segregated neighborhood provided. Throughout the first year of integration Melba, and presumably everyone of the other 8 students, had a car of white men stationed outside her home everyday as a constant reminder of the threat of danger from the KKK.
In the spring of 1958 Melba was leaving school when a gang of white boys threatened to attack her. One of the few white students who would secretly smile at her in the halls between classes came to her rescue. Melba narrowly escaped serious injury when Link gave her his car keys and told her to drive away before the crowd of white students caught up with her. It was an extraordinary act of bravery Link performed as he told Melba that the leader of her attackers were intent on causing her serious harm. Link’s sensitivity to Melba’s experience was born out of a love he had for a black maid his parents employed during his childhood. When the maid became too old to work they dismissed her to a life of poverty and neglect. Link regularly visited her rundown shack with food and supplies until she died. He held a grudge against his parents for their indifference to someone he had grown to love. After graduation Melba learned that Link had a personal interest in her welfare as he expressed his anger when she told him about her pending marriage to another white man.
Melba’s mother was an english teacher at a Black public school in Litter Rock. As the first school year of integration ended she was given a choice between removing Melba from Central High for the next school year or loose her teaching job. This was the burden the family carried from the beginning of Melba’s decision to be one of the first students to integrate Central High School. With the help from some of Little Rock’s Black leadership, her mother was able to keep her job.
Melba completed that first year of integration at Central High school, but Little Rock’s city leaders chose to close all of their schools rather than integrate them. Private academies were open to accommodate white students without any provision for Black students. This was a common reaction of southern school districts after the Supreme Court Decision to integrate public schools which meant that Black student were without publicly funded schools for years.
In 2005 a statue was unveiled of the 9 students that integrated Central High School with dignitaries from across the state and from the federal government. Many of the attendees were former students who terrorized them but who now congratulated them on their achievement.
This memoir was a very personal account of one of the most significant events of the civil rights era. Melba Pattillo Beals’ account is very intimate as she describes her relationships with family members, reporters and local clergy. I found myself amazed at how all 9 students survived the constant physical and psychological attacks. All but one of the 9 students completed the first year of integration at Central High School. The reader is able to experience the close family bonds that made the ordeal possible and despite Melba’s father not being in the family during this period the family survived on faith and the belief that their struggle was larger than themselves. Beals’ went on to become a successful journalist and public speaker. She received a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, a masters degree from Columbia and a Ph d from the University of San Francisco. Her book, White is a State of Mind, continues her life history where Warriors Don’t Cry ends.