Warriors Don't Cry
A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High
By Melba Pattillo Beals
The following excerpt from Melba Pattillo Beals' powerful new book starts with an opening note by the author, then skips to two chapters taken from roughly the middle of her story (she and eight other black students had first entered Central High School just one week before the incidents described here), and ends with a retrospective by Ms. Beals, as she looks back on her extraordinary experience.
Some people call me a heroine because I was one of nine black teenagers who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. At the age of fifteen I faced angry mobs, violent enough to compel President Eisenhower to send combat-ready 101st Airborne soldiers to quell the violence. I endured a year of school days filled with events unlike any others in the history of this country.
Although this happened over thirty-five years ago, I remember being inside Central High School as though it were yesterday. Memories leap out in a heartbeat, summoned by the sound of a helicopter, the wrath in a shouting voice, or the expression on a scowling face.
From the beginning I kept a diary, and my mother, Dr. Lois Pattillo, a high school English teacher, kept copious notes and clipped a sea of newspaper articles. I began the first draft of this book when I was eighteen, but in the ensuing years , I could not face the ghosts that its pages called up. During intervals of renewed strength and commitment, I would find myself compelled to return to the manuscript, only to have the pain of reliving my past undo my good intentions. Now enough time has elapsed to allow healing to take place, enabling me to tell my story without bitterness.
In some instances I have changed people's names to protect their identities. But all the incidents recounted here are based on the diary I kept, on news clippings, and on the recollections of my family and myself. While some of the conversations have been re-created, the story is accurate and conveys my truth of what it was like to live in the midst of a civil rights firestorm.
* * *
GUARD TAKES OVER AT SCHOOL
–Arkansas Democrat, Tuesday, October 1, 1957
I arrived at school Tuesday morning, fully expecting that I would be greeted by the 101st soldiers and escorted to the top of the stairs. Instead, we were left at the curb to fend for ourselves. As we approached the stairs, we were greeted by taunting catcalls and the kind of behavior students had not dared to exhibit in the face of the 101st.
Where were the disciplined ranks we had come to count on? I looked all around, but sure enough, there were no 101st guards in sight. Just then a boy blocked our way. What were we to do? My first thought was to retreat, to turn and go back down the stairs and detour around to the side door. But that escape route was blocked by those stalking us. A large crowd of jeering, pencil-throwing students hovered around us menacingly. We had no choice but to go forward.
"Where are your pretty little soldier boys today?" someone cried out.
"You niggers ready to die just to be in this school?" asked another.
Squeezing our way through the hostile group gathered at the front door, we were blasted by shouts of "Nigger, go home. Go back to where you belong." At every turn, we were faced with more taunts and blows. There were no 10Ist soldiers at their usual posts along the corridors.
And then I saw them. Slouching against the wall were members of the Arkansas National Guard, looking on like spectators at a sports event—certainly not like men sent to guard our safety.
I wanted to turn and run away, but I thought about what Danny [a soldier in the 101st Airborne, who had been assigned to protect the author] had said: "Warriors survive." I tried to remember his stance, his attitude, and the courage of the 101st on the battlefield. Comparing my tiny challenge with what he must have faced made me feel more confident. I told myself I could handle whatever the segregationists had in store for me. But I underestimated them.
Early that morning, a boy began to taunt me as though he had been assigned that task. First he greeted me in the hall outside my shorthand class and began pelting me with bottlecap openers, the kind with the sharp claw at the end. He was also a master at walking on my heels. He hurt me until I wanted to scream for help.
By lunchtime, I was nearly hysterical and ready to call it quits, until I thought of having to face Grandma when I arrived home. During the afternoon, when I went into the principal's office several times to report being sprayed with ink, kicked in the shin, and heel-walked until the backs of my feet bled, as well as to report the name of my constant tormentor, the clerks asked why I was reporting petty stuff. With unsympathetic scowls and hostile attitudes, they accused me of making mountains out of molehills.
Not long before the end of the school day, I entered a dimly lit rest room. The three girls standing near the door seemed to ignore me. Their passive, silent, almost pleasant greeting made me uncomfortable, and the more I thought about their attitude, the more it concerned me. At least when students were treating me harshly, I knew what to expect.
Once inside the stall, I was even more alarmed at all the movement, the feet shuffling, the voices whispering. It sounded as though more people were entering the room.
"Bombs away!" someone shouted above me. I looked up to see a flaming paperwad coming right down on me. Girls were leaning over the top of the stalls on either side of me. Flaming paper floated down and landed on my hair and shoulders. I jumped up, trying to pull myself together and at the same time duck the flames and stamp them out. I brushed the singeing ashes away from my face as I frantically grabbed for the door to open it.
"Help!" I shouted. "Help!" The door wouldn't open. Someone was holding it—someone strong, perhaps more than one person. I was trapped.
"Did you think we were gonna let niggers use our toilets? We'll burn you alive, girl," a voice shouted through the door. "There won't be enough of you left to worry about." I felt the kind of panic that stopped me from thinking clearly. My right arm was singed. The flaming wads of paper were coming at me faster and faster. I could feel my chest muscles tightening. I felt as though I would die any moment. The more I yelled for help, the more I inhaled smoke and the more I coughed.
I told myself I had to stop screaming so I wouldn't take in so much smoke. My throat hurt—I was choking. I remembered Grandmother telling me all I had to do was say the name of God and ask for help. Once more I looked up to see those grinning, jeering faces as flaming paper rained down on me. Please, God, help me, I silently implored. I had to hurry. I might not be able to swat the next one and put it out with my hands. Then what? Would my hair catch fire? I had to stop them. I picked up my books and tossed one upward as hard as I could, in a blind aim to hit my attackers.
I heard a big thud, then a voice cry out in pain and several people scuffle about. I tossed another and then another book as fast and as hard as I could. One more of their number cursed at me. I had hit my target.
"Let's get out of here," someone shouted as the group hurried out the door. In a flash, I leaped out of the stall, trying to find my things. I decided I wouldn't even bother reporting my problem. I just wanted to go home. I didn't care that I smelled of smoke or that my blouse was singed. Later when my friends asked what happened, I didn't even bother to explain.
Much worse than the fear and any physical pain I had endured, was the hurt deep down inside my heart, because no part of me understood why people would do those kinds of things to one another. I was so stunned by my experience that during the ride home I sat silent and listened to reports from the others. They, too, seemed to have had a bigger problem that day with hecklers and hooligans.
The experiment of doing without the 101st had apparently been a fiasco. By the end of the day more than one of us had heard talk that the 101st had been brought back.
Still, despite all our complaints, there were a few students who tried to reach out to us with smiles or offers to sit at our cafeteria tables; some even accompanied us along the halls. Each of us noticed, however, that those instances of friendship were shrinking rather than growing. There was no doubt that the hard-core troublemakers were increasing their activities, and without the men of the 101st, they increased a hundredfold.
President Eisenhower says he will remove the 101st soldiers if Governor Faubus agrees to protect the nine Negro children with federalized Arkansas National Guardsmen.
Those words from the radio announcer sent a chill down my spine as I sat doing my homework on Tuesday evening. I had hoped the rumors of the return of the 101st were true. But according to the report, the same Arkansas soldiers who had been dispatched by Governor Faubus to keep us out of Central High would become totally responsible for keeping us in school and protecting our lives.
"Sounds like the wolf guarding the henhouse to me," Grandma said. "Thank God you know who your real protector is, 'cause you certainly won't be able to count on those boys for help." She was peeking at me over the pages of the newspaper.
I didn't know how to tell her how right she was. But then I couldn't tell her I had had the kind of day that was making me think about running away where nobody could find me.
"Did you see where Judge Ronald Davies will be going back to North Dakota?" Grandma continued. "He will still retain jurisdiction over your case, though."
"That really frightens me," I said. "I feel safer with Davies being here."
"He is being replaced by Judge Harper from St. Louis, it says."
"Bad news," I replied. I didn't know bad things about Harper, but I had come to trust Davies as an honest and fair man with the courage of his convictions. St. Louis bordered the South; that Judge Harper might not be as open-minded.
"Of course, there is good news here," Grandma said, rattling the newspaper. "Seems as if some moderate white businessmen are getting together to oppose that special session of the legislature Faubus wants to call."
"The one to enact laws that would make integration illegal?" I asked.
"Yes, I hope they can do something to slow him down."
IKE REJECTS FAUBUS'S STATEMENT AND AGREEMENT FALLS THROUGH
–Arkansas Gazette, Wednesday, October 2, 1957
The Wednesday morning Gazette reported that Governor Faubus and the President had come to the brink of an agreement to remove the federal troops from Little Rock the day before, but at the last minute the President called it off because he didn't believe the governor would act in good faith.
As we walked toward Central that day, I was looking forward to having the 101st come back to make my life inside school at least tolerable. But right away my hopes for a more peaceful day were dashed. Showers of loud insults greeted us. Straight ahead, in front of the school I could see a group of about fifty boys waiting at the top of the stairs as they had the day before. This time, however, they descended on us like locusts.
"Get the coons! Get the coons!" The boys were brash and bold, behaving as though they feared no consequences. There were no parading 101st soldiers to stop them. Frantically, we looked around for someone in authority, but none was in sight.
Minnijean, Ernie, and I decided to retreat, but just then, vice-principal Huckaby made her presence known at the bottom of the stairs. Tiny, erect, and determined, she stood there all alone between us and our attackers, demanding they leave us alone. One by one she challenged the leaders, calling them by name, telling them to get to class or there would be hell to pay. I had to respect her for what she did. Whether or not she favored integration, she had a heck of a lot of guts.
We circled around to the Sixteenth and Park Street entrance. As I climbed the stairs, there was no sign of Danny—or the other 101st guards I knew. In fact, I didn't see any uniformed soldiers. Just inside of the front entrance, where Danny usually stood; I saw some of the same hooligans who had tried to block our entrance only moments before. They moved toward me, and I circled away from them and walked quickly down the hall. I was desperately trying to figure out why there weren't any teachers or school officials guarding the halls the way there usually were.
I panicked; I couldn't decide where to go or what to do next. I was being pounded on my arms, my back, and my legs by angry students. Their blows hurt so much that my desire to stop the pain and survive overpowered the fear that paralyzed me. I got hold of myself. No matter what, I knew I had to stand up to them even if I got kicked out of school for doing it.
"Dead niggers don't go to school," someone said, hitting me hard in the stomach. My first instinct was to double over. The pain burned my insides. But I stood still and stared at my attacker without flinching. He taunted me: "You ain't thinking of hitting me back?"
"I'm gonna cut your guts out,” I said, standing my ground. There was a long pause while we stared each other down. It was a bluff, but it worked. Looking almost frightened and mumbling under his breath, he backed off.
Just then, I noticed the members of the Arkansas National Guard lounging against the walls like cats in sunlight. Gathered in small clusters with smug, grinning expressions on their faces, they had been watching my confrontation all along. I couldn't get used to the fact that our safety now depended on nonchalant, tobacco-chewing adolescents who were most likely wearing white sheets and burning crosses on the lawns of our neighbors after sundown.
I had walked only a few steps before I was knocked to the floor. I called out for help. Three men from the Guard gave further substance to my suspicions by taking their time to respond, moving toward me in slow motion. I scrambled to my feet.
How I longed to see Danny, standing on guard in his starched uniform, and hear the swift steps of the 101st. As I felt hot tears stinging my eyes, I heard Grandmother India's voice say, "You're on the battlefield for your Lord."
I was as frightened by the ineptness of the Arkansas soldiers as by the viciousness of the increased attacks on me. If the soldiers had been armed, I was certain they would either have shot me in the back or themselves in the foot. I watched as they stood in giggling clusters while a crowd of thugs attacked Jeff and Terry and kicked them to the floor in the hallway just outside the principal's office. A female teacher finally rescued the two.
Once I was seated in class, I felt I could take a deep breath. For the moment at least I was off the front line of battle in the hallway. But just as I was feeling a snippet of peace, a boy pulled a switchblade knife and pressed the point of the blade against my forearm. In a heartbeat, without even thinking about it, I leaped up and picked up my books as a shield to fend him off.
He responded to a half-hearted reprimand from the teacher but whispered that he would get me later. At the very first sound of the bell ending class, I ran for my life, only to encounter a group of students who knocked me down and hit me with their books. As I felt rage overtake me I recalled what Danny had told me: "When you're angry, you can't think. You gotta keep alert to keep alive."
It was still early in the day, and things were so bad that I decided I had no choice: I had to find somebody in authority who would listen to me. Outside the principal's office I found Minnijean looking as abused and angry as I was.
"We gotta get out of here!" she said breathlessly.
"You're right. They're gonna kill us today," I replied.
"Let's call our folks."
"Let 's call Mrs. Bates. Maybe she can talk to the army or reporters or the President." I assumed calling the head of the NAACP would at least get some response. Merely reporting this kind of trouble to school officials might not get anything except more of the same denial that there was trouble, or perhaps reprimands for being "tattletales."
Since neither of us had change for a call, we reluctantly decided to go to Mrs. Huckaby, although we were afraid she would try and convince us to stick it out. Mrs. Huckaby greeted us in a matter-of-fact way until it dawned on her that we might be using the change we asked for to call for outside help.
"Wait a minute. What's going on?" she asked, trailing behind us.
"We're calling Mrs. Bates. We need help. Maybe she can talk to the reporters and get us some protection."
Just as we suspected, Mrs. Huckaby insisted we go to the principal's office to give him a chance to solve the problem. She assured us that he would be fair.
Principal Matthews began to speak in his slow plodding way, wearing his usual nervous smile. It was apparent he only wanted to stop us from making the call. I was in no mood to have him tell me I was imagining things, not with my leg aching and the steel flash of that switchblade knife fresh in my mind.
"Either you give us some protection so we can function without getting killed, or we go home." I heard the words come out of my mouth, but I could hardly believe it was me speaking. My knees were shaking. It was the first time in my life I had ever stood up to any adult—certainly to any white adult. But I was on the edge, ready to take the risk, because how could anything the adults might do to me be worse than the abuse I was already enduring?
"Wait here," the principal said, his tone of voice leaving no doubt he was annoyed with us. Shortly afterward, we saw the brass approaching: General Clinger and Colonel McDaniel of the Arkansas National Guard, and a third military man I did not recognize.
Clinger pointed to the two of us, most especially to me, and said, "You'll sit over there where I can look you in the face." Right away, I didn't like him, but I was ready to deal with him.
The rest of our group was summoned to the office. Everyone was vocal about the severity of the attacks during the morning. Each one had a story about how the physical abuse had increased significantly. We told Clinger that his men were not protecting us, that they stood by, socializing and flirting while we were being beaten within an inch of our lives. "Those guards are turning their backs to attacks on us, and we demand you do something about it," I insisted.
Clinger didn't deny the charges. He explained that his men had to live in the community.
"We just wanna keep living ... period," I said.
"Don't talk directly to the guards. Go to the office and report incidents," we were told.
I said, "With all due respect, sir, how can we run to the office every time we want help. Somebody could be beating one of us at the far end of the hall, and we'd have to wait until they finished and let us up so we could come here to report it."
I felt something inside me change that day. I felt a new will to live rise up in me. I knew I wasn't just going to roll over and die. I could take care of myself and speak up to white folks, even if my mother and father sometimes feared doing so. I discovered I had infinitely more guts than I had started the school year with. I had no choice. It was my life I was dickering for. I knew that Clinger didn't care about our welfare—not even a tiny bit.
"Young lady," Clinger said, eyeballing me, "you are turning our words. I didn't say—"
But I cut him off. "My friends and I will leave school if we don't get adequate protection. It's as simple as that," I told him. The others were obviously as angry as I was as they chimed in with their complaints. They voiced their agreement that something had to be done immediately.
"You'll have bodyguards." Clinger spoke with a definite edge to his voice. He summoned another soldier and told him to select eighteen men while we waited there. Those Arkansas guardsmen were the biggest, dumbest, most disheveled hayseeds I'd ever seen. They looked as if they had slept in their rumpled uniforms. We stood there not believing our eyes, dumbfounded by the sight of them.
"These clods will trip over their own shoelaces," I whispered to Minnijean.
"Or worse yet, get us in some dark corner and beat the living daylights out of us," she replied.
After about fifteen minutes we "moved out," or in their case, shuffled out. It was a sight to behold. There we were, followed by an absurd wall of not so mighty military green trailing us like a ridiculous wagging tail.
We found ourselves laughing aloud, and the white students were laughing with us. For just one minute we all realized the ridiculous situation we were caught up in.
Four of us went to our usual table in the cafeteria; the guards took up their posts, leaning against a nearby wall. When I got up to get in line for a sandwich, they fell over each other trying to see where I was going and which of them would follow me. Two stood in line with me, arms folded, tummies out, and shoulders rounded. Each time one of us rose to get anything, two of those clowns stumbled up to follow. It was a comedy of errors.
As we moved through the halls in our oddball group, I saw, just a few feet away, the boy who had pulled the knife on me earlier. The momentary terror I felt reminded me our situation wasn't funny after all.
I missed Danny. That was another feeling taking me over. Rumor had it that the 101st waited at Camp Robinson, just outside Little Rock. But I knew that even if he came back again and again, there would come the day when he would be gone for good.
Still, I was overjoyed when on Thursday we once again had our 101st bodyguards. Maybe they were forced to come back because the morning Gazette had reported the story of Terry and Jeff being kicked while Arkansas National Guardsmen looked on.
As we arrived at school that morning, I noticed right away that there was a different kind of tension, as though everyone was waiting for something awful to happen, only we didn't know what. We had heard rumors of a planned student protest. I could see groups of students standing in the halls instead of in class where they would normally have been.
Just before first period, more students began walking out of classes. Rumors about a big event reverberated throughout the school. I could see and feel a new level of restlessness and a deepening sense of hostility. I was on edge, waiting for disaster any moment, like dynamite or a group attack or I didn't know what. "They're hangin' a nigger, just like we’re gonna hang you," someone muttered. That’s when I learned that some of those who walked out had assembled at the vacant lot at Sixteenth and Park across from the school, where they hanged and burned a straw figure.
That demonstration set the tone of the day. Belligerent student protests were firing up the already hostile attitude inside the school. Danny broke the rules by coming closer and talking to me—warning that we had to stay alert, no matter what.
Near the end of the day I was walking down a dimly lit hallway, with Danny following, when I spotted a boy coming directly toward me on a collision course. I tried to move aside, but he moved with me. I didn't even have time to call for help.
The boy flashed a shiny black object in my face. The sudden pain in my eyes was so intense, so sharp, I thought I'd die. It was like nothing I'd ever felt before. I couldn't hear or see or feel anything except that throbbing, searing fire centered in my eyes. I heard myself cry out as I let go of everything to clutch at my face.
Someone grabbed me by my ponytail and pulled me along very fast, so fast I didn't have time to resist. The pain of being dragged along by my hair was almost as intense as that in my eyes. Hands grabbed my wrists and pried my hands from my face, compelling me to bend over. Then cold, cold liquid was splashed in my eyes. The water felt so good. My God, thank you! The pain was subsiding.
"Easy, girl, easy. You're gonna be fine. "It was Danny's voice, his hands holding my head and dousing my eyes with water.
"I can't see," I whispered. "I can't see."
"Hold on. You will."
Over and over again, the cold water flooded my face. Some of it went into my nose and down the front of my blouse. Bit by bit I could see the sleeve of Danny's uniform, see the water, see the floor beneath us. The awful pain in my eyes had turned into a bearable sting. My eyes felt dry, as though there were a film drawn tight over them.
"What was that?"
"I don't know,' Danny said, "maybe some kind of alkaline or acid. The few drops that got on your blouse faded the color immediately. Hey, let's get you to the office so we can report this. You gotta get to a doctor."
"No. No," I protested.
"School's almost over, I wanna go home, right now. Please, please don't make me...." I felt tears. I knew he hated me to cry, but the thought of going to the office made me crazy. I couldn't handle having some hostile clerk telling me I was making mountains out of mole hills.
"Calm down. You can do what you want but—"
"No, home right now." I said, cutting Danny off.
A short time later, an optometrist examined my eyes and studied the spots on my blouse. He put some kind of soothing substance into my eyes and covered them with eye patches. As I sat there in the dark, I heard him say, "Whoever kept that water going in her eyes saved the quality of her sight, if not her sight itself. She'll have to wear the patch overnight. She'll have to be medicated for a while. She'll need to wear glasses for all close work. I'd really like to see her wear them all the time. I'll need to see her once a week until we're certain she's all right."
Glasses, all the time, I thought. No boy wants to date a girl with glasses.
Despite the doctor's instructions to wear an eye patch for twenty-four hours, I had to take it off. I couldn't let the reporters see me with the patch because they would ask questions and make a big deal of it.
By the time we got home it was seven o'clock, and I wasn't very talkative for the waiting reporters. Once inside I fell into bed, too exhausted to eat dinner. "Thank you, God,” I whispered, "thank you for saving my eyes. God bless Danny, always."
THE HANGING, STABBING, AND BURNING OF A NEGRO EFFIGY NEAR CENTRAL HIGH
–Arkansas Gazette, Friday, October 4, 1957
The newspaper story contained several vivid pictures of Central High students gathered the day before, hanging the effigy, then burning it. They were smiling gleefully as though they were attending a festive party.
"You made it. It's Friday," Danny said, greeting me at the front of Central once more. "Your peepers okay?"
My eyes still felt very dry and tight. There were floating spots before them, but I could see. They only stung when I went too long without putting the drops in.
Later that afternoon there was a movie star—someone I'd never heard of—speaking, before a pep rally: Julie Adams, a former student. She was there to boost spirits because, she said, Central High School's reputation was being tainted.
Over the weekend of October 5th, a great thing happened that took the little Rock school integration from the front pages of the national news. The Russians launched their I84-pound satellite, Sputnik.
But as the next week began, local radio, television, and newspapers claimed that 101st guards were following us females to the lavatory and harassing white girls. GI'S IN GIRLS' DRESSING ROOMS, FAUBUS SAYS ran as a banner headline in the Gazette for Monday, October 7. Of course it wasn't true. However, it made the military tighten up rules about where soldiers could or could not go with us and prompted them to launch a massive internal investigation.
I could see a steady erosion in the quality of security in response to charges of interference by the soldiers. It was evident as the early days of October passed that whenever the 101st troops relaxed their guard or were not clearly visible, we were in great danger.
* * *
FAUBUS WANTS SCHOOL RESPITE: STILL SAYS NEGROES MUST BE WITHDRAWN
–Arkansas Gazette, Thursday, October 10, 1957
The governor continued to conduct a public campaign, complaining loud and long in a nonstop series of newspaper, radio, and television interviews that integration must be halted. Inspired by his attitude, those who did not want us at Central High were digging in their heels and becoming much better organized in their efforts to get rid of us.
Each day we arrived to find we were facing a different set of circumstances. Officials experimented with ways of protecting our safety that would at the same time please politicians who wanted the troops gone from school and gone from Little Rock. Increasing physical violence brought back the 101st guards on some occasions. We found ourselves spending our days with one personal bodyguard from the 101st, or with varying numbers and kinds of bodyguards, or totally alone.
For example, when one of us had a major problem, they brought in a three-hundred pound 101st guard nicknamed Goggles. With nightsticks and other equipment strapped at his side, he made the kind of shield that fended off even the most hard-core segregationists. We grew to love him because being with Goggles meant a safe day no matter where you went. God bless Goggles and keep him in good health forever, was my prayer.
The beginning of the second week of October brought with it the realization that I would have to settle into some kind of routine that would allow me to cope with day-to-day harassment. Beyond the noise and hoopla of integrating school, beyond the glitter of news conferences, beyond anything else going on in my life, I had to figure out how to make it through seven hours with Central High segregationists each day.
My diary entry for Tuesday, October 8, read:
The ride to school today seemed livelier than ever. The driver of the jeep was friendlier. He finds all this confusion quite amusing.
I like what I wore—my orange blouse and quilted skirt. On my way to the third-period class, someone squirted ink on my blouse. I went to class feeling hurt and angry because I knew it would never come out. In English class, a boy was called on to recite. When he failed to answer the question, I raised my hand to recite. When I gave the right answer, he said, Are you going to believe me or that nigger?
Two days later, on Thursday, October 10, I wrote:
This morning I was given two new guards. This made me feel quite comfortable. I left home without eating breakfast and gee was I hungry. But I couldn't go to lunch in the cafeteria because that room is becoming the main place for them to get me.
On some days I found myself thinking every waking moment about nothing else but my safety—consumed with learning skills that would keep me alive. When would someone get the best of me, and how could I head them off? By October 11, I had made myself ill with what appeared to be flu but was probably greatly compounded by a real case of fear and exhaustion. On that Friday, I stayed home from Central and snuggled down into my bed where it was safe.
I was well aware that my illness was more sadness and exhaustion than flu. I knew I had to get myself together because the next day I was supposed to meet with some of the eight others and some hard-core segregationist student leaders for a discussion that might lead to an understanding. To insure my speedy recovery, Grandma came after me with castor oil. I protested, but I knew it was no use.
I had tried to explain to her that I was just weary of hostile white students, hurtful deeds, soldiers and army jeeps back and forth to school, and news reporters with their endless questions. "Weary" had always been an older person's complaint. But I knew for certain I was weary. Grandma was having none of it.
"The orange juice will cut the taste-here, drink,' she said, leaning in so close that I had no prayer of escape. "Don't make me bend over this way, my back hurts," Her spectacles slid to the end of her nose. I looked into her huge determined eyes, and I knew I was trapped. I gulped it down. The warm oily liquid was oozing across my tongue, down my throat when she popped a peppermint drop into my mouth.
And it wasn't only the castor oil I had to endure with my claim of flu. That was just the beginning of a whole official ceremony that included Grandma's garlic and herb poultice on my chest, which I figured was guaranteed to asphyxiate the germs. If that didn't do it, the inch thick Vicks salve she smeared over every centimeter of my body would surely send the flu bugs running. Yet as awful as some of her healing treatment was to endure, it felt better to be there at home with her than at Central High.
"It's too bad you have to miss a day, of school." Mother Lois fluffed my pillows and tightened the sheet at the bottom of my bed. Dressed in her tan gabardine teaching suit with black blouse, she was off to school. "Let's hope you'll be well enough to attend tomorrow." She leaned over to kiss my forehead and to fetch her briefcase from the chair where she had left it. "Meeting with those Central High kids could be a first step to some kind of peacemaking."
I knew very well I would have to force myself to attend. It would be the first time ever that segregationist student leaders would be coming to talk to us integrating students in a reasonably safe place where we all could speak our minds. It was sponsored by a Norwegian reporter, Mrs. Jorumn Rickets, who had set it up with Ernie, Minnijean, and me, and the group spotlighted as staunch troublemakers: Sammy Dean Parker, Kaye Bacon, and their crowd. Sammy Dean Parker had been seen in the newspaper embracing Governor Faubus as she thanked him for keeping us out of school.
People referred to the meeting as a possible turning point, a time of coming together. I had thought about nothing else for several days. I even dreamed that we would go to the meeting, and afterward things would calm down considerably at school. After a real heart-to-heart, the white students would see the light, and that would be the beginning of a smooth year.
It was that hope that made me drag myself out of bed on Saturday morning and head for the Parish Hall of St. Andrew's Cathedral. Upon arrival I learned the meeting would be recorded by the National Broadcasting Company for future use on a network radio show. I hoped that wouldn't change our being able to speak our minds.
The meeting room was a stark white setting, with mahogany straight-back chairs. It was the kind of place that could well inspire a deep, honest talk that might help us get along with each other. Mrs. Rickets, a woman of medium stature with blond hair pulled to the nape of her neck, began asking questions.
Joseph Fox, labeled a Central moderate because he didn't violently oppose our presence, said, "I lay the whole blame for this thing in Governor Faubus's lap. We wouldn't have had nearly so much trouble if he hadn't called out the National Guard."
"That's not so. I think our governor is trying to protect all of us," said Sammy Dean Parker, an avowed segregationist seen embracing the governor on the front page of the newspaper.
"He's trying to prepare us. He said we'd have to integrate, but he has to prepare us."
Ernie said, "All we want is an education and to be able to go to school and back home safely."
When Mrs. Rickets asked why some of the white children objected to going to school with us, Sammy Dean replied: "Well, it's racial, marrying each other."
"School isn't a marriage bureau," Ernie said.
"We don't have to socialize," I said.
Kaye Bacon said she had heard rumors that we wanted to "rule" over them.
"I don't think you know much about our people. I don't think you ever tried to find out,” Minnijean said.
Kaye admitted she hadn't tried to understand much about us until that meeting.
"We're scared to death five hundred of you'all are gonna be coming into school," Sammy Dean said.
The white students also expressed their feelings about the troops. Several times they spoke of their outrage at having soldiers in their school. "How do you think we like being escorted in and out of school?" I said. "How do you think we like not knowing who will hit us and when or where we'll be attacked?"
Later in the New York Times, Sammy Dean Parker and Kaye Bacon said that as a result of the meeting they now had a new attitude. One headline in the Gazette read: TWO PUPILS TELL OF CHANGE IN ATTITUDE ON SEGREGATION.
Sammy Dean Parker was quoted as saying, "The Negro students don't want to go to school with us any more than we want to go with them. If you really, talk with them, you see their side of it. I think the NAACP is paying them to go."
When I read her statement, I realized Sammy hadn't understood at all our reason for attending Central High. I wondered where on earth she thought there was enough money to pay for such brutal days as I was enduring. I wouldn't know how much money to charge for all the good days I wasn't having in my old high school with friends who liked me. What price could anyone set for the joy and laughter and peace of mind I had given up?
I stayed in bed all day Sunday, telling myself I was ill, but the truth was I was partially suffering from downhearted blues. That meeting hadn't helped the integration at all. Those white students didn't understand. Even when Vince called for our regular Sunday date, I didn't give up my claim to illness. Snuggling down into the safety of my bed made me feel as though I were a carefree little girl who hadn't been to Central High and hadn't yet discovered that miracles don't happen exactly when and how you want them to.
In my diary, I wrote:
October 14, Monday
Flu, absent—Governor Faubus is still speaking out and causing turmoil. Quotes in daily papers make me know he will not let us rest.
Today Mother Lois brought home a new hi-fi. I guess she thought it would cheer up my sadness.
October 15, Tuesday
With my head under the covers so Grandmother could not hear or see me, I cried myself to sleep. I know I am fighting for a good cause—and I know if I trust God I shouldn't cry. I will keep going, but will it really make a difference.
I feel like something inside me has gone away. I am like a rag doll with no stuffing. I am growing up too fast. I'm not ready to go back to Central and be a warrior just yet. I don't have any more strength. I want to stay right here, listening to Nat King Cole.
On Tuesday, October 15, my friends entered Central with only one soldier from the 101st as an escort. Once inside the school, only, twenty-one National Guardsmen and nine 101st Airborne soldiers guarded them in the hallways.
A story in the Wednesday Arkansas Gazette was headlined: TWO NEGROES ILL. I thought it was funny to read about myself and Terry Roberts being out of Central High with the flu. By the time the paper printed the story, I was already back in class. According to that same article, Terry had said that things had been so bad for him the week before that he had almost decided to quit Central and go back to Horace Mann.
By the time I returned to school on Wednesday, things had deteriorated. The headlines that day read:
101st DIVISION CUT BACK FORCE TODAY;
1/2 GOING BACK TO KENTUCKY
Until that time, when soldiers were taken away it was only to Camp Robinson—a stone's throwaway. The announcement of their departure to Kentucky gave segregationists reason to celebrate, and it was evident in the students who bragged about their renewed hope of getting rid of us.
As I stepped into the hallway, just for an instant the thought of fewer troops terrified me. But the warrior growing inside me squared my shoulders and put my mind on alert to do whatever was necessary to survive. I tried hard to remember everything Danny had taught me. I discovered I wasn't frightened in the old way anymore. Instead, I felt my body muscles turn steely and my mind strain to focus. I had to take care of myself. I could really depend only on myself for protection.
A new voice in my head spoke to me with military-like discipline: Discover ink sprayed on the contents of your locker—don't fret about it, deal with it. Get another locker assigned, find new books, get going—don't waste time brooding or taking the hurt so deep inside. Kicked in the shin, tripped on the marble floor—assess the damage and do whatever is necessary to remain mobile. Move out! Warriors keep moving. They don't stop to lick their wounds or cry.
During early morning classes that day several students heckled me about Minnijean, saying that if she tried to take part in their school activities there would be a big retaliation. Word had gotten around school and to the Central High Mothers' League that Minnijean would be participating in a student talent show. Segregationists demanded that we not be allowed to participate in any extracurricular activities.
"That nigger ain't gonna sing on our stage. My daddy says he'll see her dead first." The boy shouting this ran past me, knocking my books out of my arms. When I bent over to pick them up, someone kicked me from behind and pushed me over. I landed hard on my wrist. It felt broken.
"Okay. Get yourself up, and I'll get the books." It was a voice I didn't recognize, speaking to me while students rushed past, laughing and pointing as I lay in pain. An Arkansas National Guard soldier was standing beside me, gathering my books and speaking in a gentle tone. "Can you get up? Try to get up on your feet as fast as you can."
I tried to get to my feet, but my head was pounding and my body ached.
"What the hell, gal, take my hand. You're gonna get us both killed if you don't move. We ain't got no help." He took my hand and boosted me upright. It hurt to stand on my ankle. "Let's move outta here, right now!" He was pushing me faster than my body wanted to go, but I knew he was right, I had to move.
When we finally got to a safe spot, I thanked him, blinking back hot tears. That soldier, whoever he was, stayed within full sight of me for the rest of the day. He didn't say anything, but whenever I looked for him, he was there. As I was leaving school, he was standing in the hallway, slouching against the wall like his buddies. But he had been kind to me, and I would remember that not all members of the Arkansas National Guard were of the same character.
That evening, during the meeting at Mrs. Bates's house, we were told that within a few days we would no longer have the jeep and station wagon to take us back and forth to school. We would have to set up car pools. I tossed and turned all night, wondering whether or not we could survive without our 101st guards and the station wagon escort.
By mid-October, there were fewer and fewer 101st guards and fewer Arkansas National Guardsmen. We quickly learned that the presence of the 101st had lulled us into a false sense of security. The segregationist students were just biding their time until they could make their move. As the guards were reduced in number, our attackers revved up a full campaign against us. The less visible the 101st the more we suffered physical and verbal abuse.
JUDGE DAVIES DISMISSES SUIT FOR REMOVAL OF U.S. TROOPS; STATE MAY FILE, FAUBUS SAYS
–Arkansas Gazette, Friday, October 18, 1957
That lawsuit had been filed by Margaret Jackson and the Central High Mothers' League. Segregationists continued to apply whatever pressure they could to get the troops reduced. Governor Faubus continued to bargain with President Eisenhower for our withdrawal from school and for an extension to begin integration sometime in the far distant future. Faubus's declarations provided a glimmer of hope that made segregationists feel their oats. We were suffering increased harassment inside the hallways and classrooms, and still the troops were dwindling day by day.
Although I saw some 101st soldiers around the school, Danny didn't seem to be there any longer. At first I looked for him in every corner, but finally I was so busy defending myself that looking for him was no longer the first thing on my mind.
In the days that followed, I neither understood nor controlled the warrior growing inside me. I couldn't even talk to Grandma India about the way I was feeling. It was a secret. As Samson had been weakened by a hair-cut, I thought I might lose my power if I spoke of it. I stopped complaining as much to my eight friends about the awful things segregationists were doing to me. I stopped trying to figure out what might happen the next moment, the next hour, the next day and focused intensely on right now.
I thought a lot about how to appear as strong as I could as I walked the halls: how not to wince or frown when somebody hit me or kicked me in the shin. I practiced quieting fear as quickly as I could. When a passerby called me nigger, or lashed out at me using nasty words, I worked at not letting my heart feel sad because they didn't like me. I began to see that to allow their words to pierce my soul was to do exactly what they wanted.
My conversations with my eight friends began to change, too. We joked less with each other, and there was considerably less talk about our hopes that the students might immediately begin to accept us. Instead, we exchanged information about how to cope: "Don't go down this hallway to get to the cafeteria, that's where the hit-and-run trippers wait for you." "Stay out of the third floor doorway; boys with knives hang out there." "Don't exit that set of stairs; that's where the boys with the dynamite sticks always wait."
It was the kind of information warriors exchange to wage the battles they must win, or die. My energies were devoted to one goal—planning for my own safety and shielding myself from hurt. Even though I wasn't totally satisfied with the grades on my report card of October 17, I decided I had to make staying alive my priority.
October 20's newspaper carried an article saying that Clarence Laws, Southwest Regional Field Secretary for the NAACP, denied rumors that we nine were being paid to go to Central, or had been imported from the North to integrate Little Rock schools, or that our parents were planning to take us out of school.
On October 23, we left school without a guard and walked to the station wagon alone. On the morning of October 24, we walked to the front door once more without an escort. The evening headlines read:
NEGRO STUDENTS ENTER SCHOOL WITHOUT ESCORT
REDUCED TO SIX 101 AIRBORNE
My brother, Conrad, complained that I wouldn't play games with him—not even our favorite Monopoly. I realized he was right. Lately I had no time for play. Vince was complaining as well because I wasn't available to speak on the phone or to go out with him. My after-school time was filled with meetings and news people and sometimes just sitting silent in my room to ponder what would become of me. Central High integration was slowly destroying my life.
During one late October after-school meeting, we discussed the fact that President Eisenhower would not stop withdrawing 10st troops even though our parents and Mrs. Bates had sent a telegram informing him that opposition against us was more violent with each passing day. We discussed trying yet another approach to change the attitudes of school officials so they would take control of the hooligans.
The next day was a living hell. In addition to increased heckling in the hallways, it was the beginning of a series of experiences in my gym class I would not soon forget. It all started with a verbal barrage I tried to ignore.
"You're already black meat, and what is black meat? It's burned meat," said the lanky brunette, with a devilish gleam in her eyes, as she stood outside my shower space. I stood stark naked, my privacy invaded, while others joined her, leering and spouting insults. I was racking my brain, wondering what she was talking about, and then it came, the scalding water. I felt myself cry aloud as the sheet of steaming water spread pain across my shoulders and back. I was stunned, paralyzed by the cruelty of their act. Two other girls appeared just at that moment to shove me directly beneath the spray and hold me there.
I suddenly felt surging inside of me a strength that matched my determination. I grabbed my attackers' arms and pulled them in with me as close as I could. I let them feel my anger with my elbows, my feet, and with words that would take me to brimstone and hellfire later, but at least I'd have time to prepare. I was using some of the same language they used on me.
As the girls backed away, I emerged to find they had removed my clothing and books. There I was, scrambling about wearing only a towel and a bad attitude. When finally I found my outer clothing, it was stuffed in a corner, but my underwear was on the floor of another shower, soaking wet. I would freeze all day. I could look forward to damp spots seeping through my outer garments. As I got dressed, my clothes irritated my scalded skin. It hurt to move.
Later in the day I encountered the "heel-walking committee.” Groups of students would walk close up behind me and step on my heels, generating the most excruciating pain. I would walk faster, but they would catch up and continue doing it. After a while my heels were bleeding through my socks. When I went to the office for Band-Aids, the woman on duty turned up her nose and sneered. “If you can’t stand an occasional tap on the heel, why don’t you leave.”
By the end of the day, I was exhausted from defending myself and trying to figure out what would come next. And I was beginning to have an uncontrollable urge to fight back.
* * *
LITTLE ROCK WARRIORS THIRTY YEARS LATER
THE LITTLE ROCK NINE COME TOGETHER FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE ‘57
Headline, Arkansas Gazette, Friday, October 23, 1987
The stone steps are slippery with morning drizzle as we begin the tedious climb up to the front door of Central High School. It is the first time in thirty years that we nine black alumni have entered this school together.
In 1957, as teenagers trying to reach the front door, we were trapped between a rampaging mob, threatening to kill us to keep us out, and armed soldiers of the Arkansas National Guard dispatched by the governor to block our entry.
On this day Arkansas Governor Billy Clinton, who in less than six years will be President of the United States, greets us warmly with a welcoming smile as he extends his hand. We are honored guests, celebrating both our reunion and thirty years of progress in Little Rock’s race relations. Cameras flash, reporters shout questions, dignitaries lavish enthusiastic praise on us, and fans ask for our autographs.
And yet all this pomp and circumstance and the presence of my eight colleagues does not numb the pain I feel at entering Central High School, a building I remember only as a hellish torture chamber. I pause to look up at this massive school–two blocks square and seven stories high, a place that was meant to nourish us and prepare us for adulthood. But, because we dared to challenge the Southern tradition of segregation, this school became instead, a furnace that consumed our youth and forged us into reluctant warriors.
On this occasion, we nine ascend the stairs amid a group of reporters and dignitaries gathered here for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention. I have a slight tension headache and like some of the others, I am yawning. Even though each one of us is a forty-something, we were up very late last night enjoying one another’s company and giggling just as we did when we were teenagers.
Long past the hour that should have been bedtime, we gathered in Ernie's suite to catch up on the years when we were separated from each other. Our senior member and now a Shearson Lehman Hutton vice president, Ernie treated us to all the room service we could handle. Still, the fun we enjoyed last night does not make it easier to appear nonchalant on this occasion. Some of us take another's arm to brace ourselves as we prepare to face the ghosts in this building. Even as we speak of how much we dread touring this school, some of us blink back tears to smile for the media, shake hands, and sign autographs.
"How does it feel to be in Little Rock again?" a reporter shouts.
"Weird," I reply.
We nine have come from our homes around the world. Gloria, a magazine publisher, is a citizen of the Netherlands. Minnijean, a Canadian citizen, is a writer and raises her six children on a farm. Shearson V.P. Ernie comes from New York; Thelma has come from her Illinois teaching duties; and Dr. Terry Roberts comes from his UCLA professor's post. Carlotta is a Denver realtor, and Jeff is a Defense Department accountant from California. Only Elizabeth stayed on in Little Rock, where she is a social worker. It is significant that almost all of us chose not to remain in Little Rock but sought lives elsewhere.
All of us bring children—some are adults now like my daughter, Kellie. Others are toddlers, or the same age as we were when we attended Central. We have observed each other's graying hair and balding spots and noted paunches brought on by the years. Time has, nonetheless, been kind to us.
Our relationships with one another and the joy of our camaraderie have not changed. For me our reunion has been a rediscovery of a part of myself that was lost—a part that I longed to be in touch with. I have missed these eight people who by virtue of fate's hand are most dear to me. Since our arrival in Little Rock, we have laughed and cried together and talked nonstop. We have both relished and dreaded this moment when we would again walk up these stairs.
Today, if I let the memories flood in and listen closely, on these same stone steps I can hear the click-clack of leather boots—boots worn by soldiers of the 101st Airborne, dispatched to escort us past the raging mob. I hear the raspy voices of their leaders commanding, "Forward march," as we first walked through these front doors on September 25, 1957.
"What was it like to attend Central?" asks one reporter.
"I got up every morning, polished my saddle shoes, and went off to war," I reply. "It was like being a soldier on a battlefield."
"It was a teenager's worst nightmare," someone else shouts.
"What's worse than to be rejected by all your classmates and teachers."
"What's it like to be back here again?" another reporter asks.
"Frightening," one voice says. Most of us have rarely come back to Arkansas as adults. Even though my mother and brother continue to live here, I have only found the strength to visit five times in thirty years because of the uneasy feeling the city gives me. Three of those visits have been since Bill and Hillary Clinton took over the governor's mansion, because they set a tone that made me feel safer here.
"How does the city look to you now?"
I answer the question to myself. Very different from when I lived here. Today, I could not find my way around its newly built freeways, its thriving industrial complexes, its racially mixed, upscale suburban sprawl. It is a town that now boasts a black woman mayor. My brother, Conrad, is the first and only black captain of the Arkansas State Troopers—the same troopers that held me at bay as a teenager when I tried to enter Central.
We reach the crest of the first bank of stairs, turn right at the landing, and begin mounting the next set of steps when we hear more shouting from the reporters: "Stop. Look this way, please. Can you wave?"
I am annoyed. You'd think I'd be more patient with their questions, since I am a former NBC television news reporter and have been a working journalist for twenty years. But it's different when you're the person being barraged by questions. I resent their relentless observation of the nine of us during such a personal time. Still, I try to smile graciously, because these reporters have traveled a great distance from their posts around the world to be here.
Where is Governor Faubus, I wonder. Where is the man who dispatched armed soldiers to keep nine children out of school, who bet his life and his career that he could halt integration?
"Faubus is quoted on the news wires today saying if he had it to do over again, he'd do the same thing. What do you think about that?" a reporter asks.
"If we had it to do again, we'd do the same," Terry quips.
"Why isn't Faubus here?" someone asks.
"Because he wasn't invited," a reporter replies. "At least that's what he says. He retired to some small town in Arkansas."
As we near the top of the second bank of stairs, I sense that something is missing. I look below and see that the fountain has disappeared. It once stood directly in front of the hundred-foot-wide neo-Gothic entryway, with stairs ascending to it on both sides. Hearing my expression of surprise, a man I do not know explains: Someone threw jell-O into it, so they concreted it over. I pause as I recall what a treacherous place that fountain was in 1957 when students repeatedly tried to push us the sixty feet or so down into the water. Nobody thought to close it then.
All at once, I realize the questions have suddenly stopped. I am surrounded by an anxious silence—like the hush of an audience as the curtain is about to rise. The main entrance of the school is now clearly in sight. I feel a familiar twinge; a cold fist clamps about my stomach and twists it into a wrenching knot, and just at that instant, it is October of 1957, and I am a helpless, frightened fifteen-year-old, terrified of what awaits me behind those doors. What will they do to me today? Will I make it to my homeroom? Who will be the first to slap me, to kick me in the shin, or call me nigger?
Suddenly one of the huge front doors swings open. A black teenager impeccably dressed in morning coat and bow tie emerges. He is slight, perhaps five feet six inches tall, with closely cropped hair, wearing wire-rimmed spectacles. He bows slightly as we approach.
"Good morning. I am Derrick Noble, president of the student body. Welcome to Central High School."
* * *
When I watch news footage of the day we entered school guarded by the 101st soldiers, I am moved by the enormity of that experience. I believe that was a moment when the whole nation took one giant step forward. Once President Eisenhower made that kind of commitment to uphold the law, there was no turning back. And even though later on he would waver and not wholeheartedly back up his powerful decision, he had stepped over a line that no other President had ever dared cross. Thereafter the threat of military intervention would always exist whenever a Southern governor thought of using his office to defy federal law.
I marvel at the fact that in the midst of this historic confrontation, we nine teenagers weren't maimed or killed. Believe me, it was only by the grace of God and the bravery of those few good men—some of them white men. I never allow myself to forget that, although I was abused by many white people during that incident. Without the help of other law-abiding whites who risked their lives, I wouldn't be around to tell this story.
Yet even as I wince at the terrible risk we all took, I remember thinking at the time that it was the right decision—because it felt as though the hand of fate was ushering us forward. Naive and trusting, adults and children alike, we kept thinking each moment, each hour, each day, that things would get better, that these people would come to their senses and behave. This is a land governed by sane citizens who obey the law, at least that's what we're taught in history class.
So we headed down a path from which there was no turning back, because when we thought of alternatives, the only option was living our lives behind the fences of segregation and passing on that legacy to our children.
Today, when I see how far we have progressed in terms of school integration, in some instances I am pleased. In other areas I am very angry. Why have we not devised a workable plan for solving a problem that has so long plagued this nation? We put a man on the moon because we committed the resources to do so. Today, thirty-six years after the Central High crisis, school integration is still not a reality, and we use children as tender warriors on the battlefield to achieve racial equality.
* * *
If my Central High School experience taught me one lesson, it is that we are not separate. The effort to separate ourselves whether by race, creed, color, religion, or status is as costly to the separator as to those who would be separated.
When the milk in Oregon is tainted by the radiation eruption of a Soviet nuclear reactor, we are forced to see our interdependence. When forgotten people feel compelled to riot in Los Angeles, we share their pain through our TV screens, and their ravages impact our emotional and economic health.
The task that remains is to cope with our interdependence—to see ourselves reflected in every other human being and to respect and honor our differences.
(the God in me sees and honors the God in you)
After earning a bachelor's degree from San Francisco State and a graduate degree from Columbia University, Melba Pattillo Beals worked as a reporter for NBC. Today, she is a communications consultant in San Francisco and is the author of books on public relations and marketing.
This excerpt is taken from Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals. Copyright © 1994 by Melba Beals. Excerpted by permission of Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.