One of the Little Rock 9 speaks to group of early terror and eventual healing
Melba Beals knew why she wanted to go to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. As a child she had been driven by the massive 1,800-student campus countless times. Looking at its grand Gothic Revival facade, its more than 7 acres of grass and classrooms and library space and science labs, Beals knew she wanted to study there.
An education at Central High was her way out of deeply racist and segregated Little Rock, she knew.
But growing up, only white kids went there.
Beals is Black.
But when she raised her hand to enroll at the crown jewel of Little Rock’s school system in the first wave of officials’ meek effort to integrate its campuses, she didn’t want to change the world, she just wanted a shot at a better education.
She wanted out of Little Rock.
“When you look at that school, you say, ‘Why? Why do they have that?’” recalled Beals, who now lives in Marin County.
But once enrolled, amid racist protests that made the event world-famous, it took months to determine why she wanted, or perhaps more accurately, why she needed, to stay. To stay through the threats on her life, the pulled knives, the shoves, the jeers, the fiery tangles of paper dropped into her bathroom stall — and the isolation.
Images of “The Little Rock Nine” attempting to simply walk onto campus amid menacing faces were in newspapers across the nation.
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the nine students in October, he made no bones about it — there was to be no complaining about their treatment, no retaliating in the face of unending taunting and threats, and absolutely no backing out.
The world, King said, was watching.
Beals, then just 15 years old, barely knew who King was. She just knew he was important.
“I knew his picture was in the paper, and by the nature of the way the adults treated him, I knew he was different,” she said. “He looked at us until we were quiet and I was never quiet. He looked at me and said, ‘Melba, don’t be selfish. You are not doing this for yourself, you are doing this for generations yet unborn.’”
“This is when I understood I wasn’t there to get Melba out of Little Rock. It was much grander than me,” she said. “But at 14, 15 years old, what do you know?”
“I am not a heroine,” she said. “Trust me when I tell you, I’m a ‘fraidy cat. Did I even understand what integration meant at the time? Uh uh.”
Beals, recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and the NAACP Springarn Medal, shared her famous story of American school integration sprinkled with insights and personal asides, to a group of nearly 50 people gathered together via Zoom Thursday at the invitation of a year-old men’s group focused on racial understanding that has dubbed themselves Here to Hear.
Discussion is a gift
For more than a year, Here to Hear has met once a week for two hours. It’s a group of six Black men and nine white men who take turns leading discussions of issues of race, oppression, white supremacy, history and current events, according to one of the founders, Don Scully.
“We take turns,” he said. “We bring topics from the news or our history and talk about it.”
The focus is unabashedly on race.
“We have just had a wonderful time. The depth of our conversation almost brings tears to my eyes,” Scully said. “I’ll be 80 (this year) and it’s been the best year of my whole life — except for when I had my three children or married my current wife.”
Scully, who had read Beals’ book “Warriors Don’t Cry” some two decades ago, knew she had a Santa Rosa connection. He hoped her name might spark interest in growing more interracial discussion groups similar to Here to Hear and invited her to speak to the group and their invited guests.
Beals said yes.
“All the discussion you have is a gift,” she told the virtual audience Thursday. “Most people these days just want to escape the discussion. Just because you don’t want to weed your garden doesn’t mean that those weeds aren’t growing.”
‘I assumed I could make it’
The torment Beals, whose maiden name was Pattillo, and her eight Black classmates endured is well documented. Their lives were threatened. After being stopped at the door on their first attempt to go to school, they made it to just past noon a week later before police officers had to sneak them off of campus for fear of a violent riot.
“I was clean, I had saddle shoes, I had a long ponytail. I had what I thought were the criteria,” she said. “I had straight A’s … I assumed I could make it, I can keep up. I just have to get my foot in the door and after a while they will see I’m as smart as they are.”