Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals, of the Little Rock Nine, recalls life during Jim Crow era

 

By MIKE MCGEE

The Dallas Examiner

 

Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals, author of the memoirs Warriors Don’t Cry and March Forward, Girl – but perhaps better known to history as one of The Little Rock Nine – was a recent speaker during the Texas Women’s University 6th annual Jamison Lecture, which was livestreamed this year.

Beals was 1 of 9 Black teens that desegregated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. This upsetting of the Jim Crow norm generated vitriol and threats of violence from so many Whites in the community that the National Guard had to be called in to safely escort the students around and from school so they could receive an education like any other student their age.

Despite those days being some of the most fear-filled of her life, Beals began the program by beseeching viewers to pay attention to those around them with differences in order to learn more about their experiences.

“I thank you for taking the time to listen. As I’ve said before, the absolute greatest gift you can give any human being on the planet is to listen,” she began. “Listen to them.”

The doctor also pointed out to viewers that, even though she witnessed homicidal violence during her life – she recalled being five years old, forced to sit through the hanging of her church’s handyman inside the building during services, the Black congregation held back by both an armed Ku Klux Klan member and the unspoken threat of retaliation should anyone intervene – she had no ill will towards towards Whites as a whole.

“I don’t want anybody for one moment to think that I hate White people. I need you to know that,” she stated even as she addressed a recent mass shooting by a White gunman.

“I need you to know that despite what has happened to me in my life, as I begin this talk with you today, I’ve already called my White sister, Judy – we’ve been together since we were 17. We’re both 79. Imagine how much we love each other.

“I need you to know that when I came from Little Rock, Arkansas, I was urgently pulled out of Little Rock at age 16 because the Ku Klux Klan had a price on my head, and the family I went to see … I was hoping a well-off Black family that could give me a cellphone and a subscription to Seventeen magazine.

“Instead it was a White family … George and Carol McCabe.”

They were a Quaker family whose patriarch was a psychologist who also helped found Sonoma State University. Throughout the lecture she referred to her Black parents and her White parents interchangeably.

She said she addressed this because she wanted listeners to reflect on what equality is. Voice, choice and inclusion were her three hallmarks of equality.

“I want to be included, don’t you?” she asked. “I want to feel welcome. I don’t want signs up saying I can’t be anywhere. I don’t want people telling jokes about my race. I don’t want people saying I’m fat, too tall, too small, too brown – none of that. I want a voice.

She talked about her early years and how her grandmother helped raise her while her mother was getting her teaching degree. While taking classes at the University of Arkansas, her mother was seated encased in a white picket fence in the middle of the classroom.

“And if she had to go potty, she had to open the little gate and walk out,” she recalled.

She then reflected on the years before she enrolled into the all-White school.

“So here I am to say to you, I passed by Central High School and my first wondering was, why can’t I go to that school,” she said of her young inquisitiveness. “And I asked those questions when I was little. My first words in my book are ‘Black folks aren’t born knowing they are second-class citizens,’ … nobody bent over my crib and said, ‘Hey, Melba. Melba, Melba, you’re a second-class citizen, girlfriend. You’re not going to be able to vote. You’re not going to be able to ride the bus in the front,” she stated.

She describing how she had to get onto a bus at the front, pay the fare, get off the bus, take the sidewalk to the rear of the bus, then use the rear door to sit in the back where it smelled of oil and smoke. “I didn’t like that.”

Living in an African American neighborhood patrolled by the KKK every night, she confessed that she wanted to get out of Little Rock from the time she was 4 years old.

In endevoring to find her voice and help others claim theirs, the doctor admitted that she and her family had no idea of the uproar that would ensue at Central High when she enrolled a decade later.

At 13, one of Beals’ teachers announced that Black students living in the neighborhood local to Central would be able to attend the school, based upon the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court desegregation decision of 1954.

Hearing this, she immediately raised her hand to be one of those students, not waiting to discuss it with her parents.

She acknowledged that Little Rock, when compared to other regions in the South, had progressed further than many other cities. She also offered from her experiences that it could still slip easily into “the old ways” when change was tangible, occurring in front of the eyes of the White-majority society.

“Now, I’m like 14-and-a-half or so, it becomes time to go in September. And the first time we go I hear all this noise, like – have you ever been to a football game?” she recalled.

The din she and her mother heard was in fact a waiting mob outside Central, angered by the imminent integration.

“And we were turned away. That was the day Elizabeth Eckford was attacked terribly in front by a group of people,” she remembered, “At this point, members of the mob chased my mother and I to our car.” The doctor wondered how she would survive anything like that if she returned.

After a second court order, she and the other students were allowed to enter the campus, but by noon a mob had again gathered, attempting to infiltrate the campus. She even overheard administrators considering letting the mob – which included police – hang one student just to prevent them from entering the building and keep the other eight Black students safe.”

She reiterated that she didn’t think all the White people were bad – even those involved with this incident. She said she realized that there were some that cared about justice enough to risk their own lives.

She recalled the police officers that drove her and the other students out of the basement in two cars, through hundreds of people banging on the windows of the vehicles, and took them all home. When Beals thanked an officer for his assistance her grandmother spoke up.

“Thank you is not enough. You’re going to pray for the safety of that man for the rest of your life,” her grandmother expressed at the time.

“Three years ago … I was standing in the museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, and this gentleman walked up to me and he said ‘I bet you won’t guess who I am.’ And he said ‘I am the man who drove you home that day.’”

Beals hugged him and thanked him, “because he put his life in danger to do that, and White people who tried to protect us were in as much danger as we were, trust me.”

Even so, they did not have to deal with what the nine students faced hourly, every day. Beals was repeatedly threatened with death, menaced by White students with knives, tripped, pelted with eggs, blinded by acid, ignored by her teachers and called every nasty racial name imaginable.

She eventually wanted to leave Central and quit the struggle, which she described as “1,900 against nine.”

Beals still has bad dreams from those experiences and terrible waking memories from her life during that time; yet she also underscored the toughness that her religious faith, her grandmother, members of the National Guard, and Dr. Martin Luther King helped her develop. She asserted that toughness empowered her to eventually get multiple degrees, become an NBC News correspondent, public speaker and author.

She noted that, while sensitivity online was a hot-button issue in modern social media, she was taught by Danny, a national guardsman who was later killed in Vietnam, to “pour cement” over her feelings – and to know when to fight and when not to.

“If abuse is words, keep walking. If it is physical, duck and run,” she said, paraphrasing Danny. “You can’t get hit in the stomach and lay there crying if they want to kill you. You have to get up.”

 

The full session is archived on the TWU YouTube channel, at https://youtu.be/87QEq_nYntA.

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