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One of the Little Rock 9 speaks to group of early terror and eventual healing

How to contact Here to Hear

Here To Hear is looking to expand its number of talking groups. An online meeting is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 15 and an in-person meeting is planned at 10 a.m. Aug. 7 at First United Methodist Church, 2150 Giffen Ave., Santa Rosa. For more information, email heretohear2045@gmail.com

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.”

How to contact Here to Hear

Here To Hear is looking to expand its number of talking groups. An online meeting is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 15 and an in-person meeting is planned at 10 a.m. Aug. 7 at First United Methodist Church, 2150 Giffen Ave., Santa Rosa. For more information, email heretohear2045@gmail.com

That’s not how it went.

It took the presence of the 1,200-man battle group from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division to get the nine students to class and through the day safely. Beals said she was escorted everywhere she went on campus for months. In that environment, she didn’t mind.

“I wouldn’t have survived without them,” she said. “These dudes did not play around. They talked to us, not a lot, but very precisely.”

The only place they didn’t stay by her side was when she went to the restroom. So that was where girls dropped lit pieces of paper over the door of Beals’s stall.

To this day, she says, she does not drink enough water — a habit she developed out of fear of being isolated in the bathroom.

The end of everything

By year’s end, the debate over integration still raged. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered all schools closed at the start of the 1958-59 school year rather than integrate them. The public was allowed to vote on the issue and Little Rock citizens voted overwhelmingly to keep the schools closed rather than allow Black students to attend.

Beals, like all students, began studying at home. But in October, her beloved grandmother, with whom she and her mother and brother lived, died.

“I spent a year shut off. They locked me in my house and shut me out of school,” she said. “Then my grandma dies in October. That was the end of everything for me. I absolutely hit the floor.”

With no school to attend, and the Ku Klux Klan calling for the students’ murder, the NAACP, the group that had supported and backed the Little Rock Nine, started looking for places to relocate them. Beals was matched with a family in Santa Rosa.

Just Joy

When Beals touched down in San Francisco, she had no idea what to expect other than a group from the NAACP. What she saw was a large group of white people waiting for her, she said.

“White people scared me,” she said. “The last time I saw them they were a mob.”

George and Carol “Kay” McCabe of Santa Rosa were, Beals learned almost immediately, not a mob. They were a family of five who raised their hands to take Beals into their Melita Road home.

“My mother called when she found out they were white and said, ‘If they don’t treat you right, come home immediately,’” Beals recalled.

She, too, was uneasy at first.

When George McCabe went to work in the backyard building Beals a bed, she assumed he was preparing to make her sleep outside.

Instead, the McCabes moved both of their daughters, along with Beals, into one bedroom and made the other room a study area.

“They were an extension of my parents,” she said. “They were a gift from heaven.”

The McCabes enrolled Beals at Montgomery High School for her senior year. Very deliberately, they signed her up with her middle name: Joy. And no interviews, no television, no nothing.

Just school. Just family. Just Joy.

“They walked me into Montgomery High the first day, my god, I was so frightened,” she said. “Dad said, ‘Joy, you are never less than my daughter. I will always take care of you, you will always be safe.’”

“I thought, ‘How come this white man and this white woman understand how it feels to be in the public eye?’ It’s so difficult,” she said. “They took me out of the limelight and just made me their child.”

Beals remembers Kay McCabe understanding that her clothes didn’t look like what other kids at Montgomery were wearing. She took money from the cookie jar to buy Beals new outfits. The McCabe girls, Judy and Dori, introduced her as their sister and moved on.

No question, no explanation — this is just how it is.

When she got lost on her first or second day of class, a group of boys — kids who looked so much like her tormentors in Little Rock — approached her.

“There was a sea of white people and I was absolutely freaked,” she said. “I’m standing in the hallway lost, with my little slip of paper and they look exactly like the ones in the mob and they say, ‘Hi, where do you belong next? Give us your schedule and we’ll take you there.”’

The school, the town and the McCabes gave Beals refuge when she needed it.

“Not one moment did I ever feel I was anybody but theirs in that household. Never,” she said. “Look at the gift they gave me.”

Beals’ high school diploma is from Central High School in Little Rock, but her class ring is from Montgomery. She earned a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State and a master’s in journalism from Columbia University. She got an earned a doctorate from the University of San Francisco. She was a longtime reporter and has written four books.

She is a mom to three kids.

She worries about racial injustice in this country, nearly 65 years after she sacrificed so much to work for it.

“I’m very stressed out these days. The voting rights that we marched for? As an African-American, as living person, we need to stay on our toes,” she said.

“Do I have hope? Yes, I have hope,” she said.

“Love is the answer.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

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