Fifty years ago, black youngsters’ struggles to attend Little Rock’s Central High School during the 1957-1958 school year propelled the civil rights movement forward in the United States. (See “After Facing Mobs 50 Years Ago, Nine Go Home to Honors.”) The Little Rock Nine’s story is really nine stories.
The experience at Central High School was a “lifetime kind of engagement,” Melba Pattillo Beals explained. “You can’t get over the fact that you didn’t go to the prom [school dance], that people treated you with total disregard.”
Once the nine black students were able to get inside the school, they suffered a year of fairly constant harassment from racist white students determined to make them quit or make a mistake that would get them expelled. A white student squirted acid into Beals’ eyes. She often was pushed, tripped or taunted.
Beals' mother, who was separated from her husband and headed a household that included two children and a grandmother, was told her teaching job would be eliminated and she would be able to find a job only outside the area. Shots were fired at the family’s home.
“But the media followed us,” Beals said. “When houses were attacked, reporters would spend the night. The press offered some protection. How are you going to kill someone … if their names are in the paper?” (Beals decided at that time that she would become a reporter, and she did.)
In 1958, when the schools were closed to avoid integration, she went to California where she lived with a white family and attended high school. Beals stayed in California to earn a college degree and launch her career.
There, she fell in love with and married a white soldier. She says now she was attracted by the fact that he offered her protection, which she craved after feeling vulnerable to violent attack in high school. “He said, ‘I will take care of you,’” Beals told USINFO.
Beals is an accomplished journalist. She has worked as a reporter for NBC and as a writer for People magazine. In 1994, she published a book called Warriors Don’t Cry, her memoir of the battle to integrate Central.
“It took me years to write the book,” she said. She started it many times, in many voices. Eventually, an editor convinced her that she had to write in the first person. Beals cried for weeks while working on the book. “This was like the letting of a wound,” she said. “When I wrote it, it changed my life.”
See Black History Month.