Beals, Melba Patillo 1941–
Melba Patillo Beals 1941–
Communications consultant and author
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As a 15 year-old, Melba Patillo Beals courageously volunteered to be one of the nine black children who began the integration of public schools in Arkansas. In 1957 these children, who would become known as the “Little Rock Nine,” attended that city’s Central High School amid protests so heated and violent that President Eisenhower sent Army troops to protect them. In 1994 Beals published her first-hand account of these events in Warriors Don f t Cry, a memoir titled after advise given to the young girl by her grandmother. The book served as a vivid recollection of Beals’s terrifying experiences and a testimony to the power and resiliency of the individual amid overwhelming adversity.
Melba Portillo Beals was born in 1941 in Little Rock, Arkansas and was raised in a middle class black neighborhood. Her mother, who supported the family as a school teacher, and her grandmother, who read Gandhi and taught Beals about non-violent resistance, were the primary influences in her life. As a young girl, Melba wanted to be an actress or a reporter and believed that she could attain her goals by receiving the finest education possible.
In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. In states such as Arkansas, however, elected officials were determined to prevent or delay integration. Three years later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) implemented a plan to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School with the support of the local school board. Potential candidates for the integration plan were asked if they lived near the school and if they had good grades. Melba readily volunteered because she believed Central High was a superior school and would allow her to achieve her educational goals. She received support from her mother and grandmother, although her father was opposed to her participation in the integration plan. Melba’s mother suggested that she keep a diary of her experiences. This diary would clearly illustrate that Melba greatly underestimated the intensity of the hatred and violence she would confront.
When the black students first tried to enter Central High School, they were turned back by angry white protestors and Arkansas National Guard troops deployed on orders from Governor Orval Faubus. President Dwight
Eisenhower responded by sending in soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the students as they entered the high school. Melba was assigned a bodyguard named Danny, who protected her from attacks from fellow students and white adults who were protesting outside the school. Despite the presence of a bodyguard, Beals was still subjected to a great deal of physical abuse. She was often tripped or spat upon, cut by broken glass, forced under scalding hot showers, and pelted with burning paper. On one occasion, acid was thrown into her eyes. Her eyesight was saved when Danny rushed her into a bathroom and doused her face with water.
In addition to the physical assaults, Beals and the other black students were regularly called nigger and threatened with death. In some ways, Beals remarked, these verbal taunts hurt worse than the physical violence. Moreover, Beals was often treated as if she simply wasn’t there, as if she were “invisible.” She told USA Today, “People would sit all around me and all I wanted them to say was, ’Hello, how are you? What a nice blouse.’ Above all else, I was so lonely,” Melba also lost realtionships with many of her black friends after they were threatened with physical violence for associating with her.
Of the nine black students who integrated Central High School, eight remained by the end of the 1957-58 school year. Beals passed the time praying and clinging to the goal to simply make it out alive. Under the pretense of preventing further violence, Governor Fau-bus closed all of the Little Rock public high schools the following fall. The NAACP housed the students with sponsor families in other states where they could finish their education in peace. Beals went to Santa Rosa, California, where she lived with a white Quaker family. Beals told the Christian Science Monitor that this experience taught her that “white people were just people who happened to be white, not anything else.”
Upon graduation from high school, Beals attended college at San Francisco State University and worked as a newscaster for a local television station. She tried to begin writing a memoir about her experiences at Central High as early as age 18, but found the recollections were too painful. She did not succeed in completing and publishing the book until she was 52. It took many years for Beals to come to terms with the emotional scars that her experiences at Central High School had created. As a child, she had bravely adopted her grandmother’s adage that “warriors don’t cry, “but found that the tears flowed freely when she recounted her experiences at Central High as an adult. As she told USA Today, it still hurt to recall “the loss of my innocence, the loss of a high school prom, no fun, and mostly just about the abuse I sustained.”
Warriors Don’t Cry has received critical praise for its historical insight and valuable personal accounts of a turbulent period in American history. Writing for the Washington Post Book World, Judith Patterson concluded that it was “a plainly written story that reflects the wisdom of the woman telling it almost 40 years after the fact and the crumbling innocence of the young woman who experienced it” as well as “a history lesson, a civics lesson and as true a story of coming of age in America at a certain time and place as one could hope to find.” What the book may have lacked in polish, it made up with power. Sandra J. Chambers warned readers in the English Journal that although she could not put the book down, “Warriors is not a cozy, feel-good book.... Nevertheless, I have recommended it as a must-read.... Warriors may be a call to action. It may be a reminder of how far we’ve come as well as how far we have to go. But beware: If you read Warriors Don’t Cry, you will feel the impact.”
Beals is a communications consultant at her own public relations firm in San Francisco. She has written a sequel to Warriors Don f t Cry called White is a State of Mind, Freedom is Yours to Claim, which was slated for publication in 1997. A movie based on Warriors Don’t Cry was also scheduled to premiere that year. Yet another of Beals’ projects is a mystery novel titled Firecrackers.
Christian Science Monitor, August 29, 1996, p. 18.
English Journal, September 1995, pp. 121-122.
New York Times Book Review, June 19, 1994, p. 33.
Scholastic Update, November 18, 1994, pp. 18-21.
USA Today, May 18, 1994, p. 4D.
Washington Post Book World, May 29, 1994, pp. 3,12.
—Paula Pyzik Scott
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