MAY/JUN 2001

Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate

Little Rock’s Central High Melba Pattillo Beals (1994)

"In 1957 while most teenage girls were listening to Buddy Holly’s ‘Peggy Sue,’ watching Elvis gyrate, and collecting crinoline slips, I was escaping the hanging rope of a lynch mob, dodging lighted sticks of dynamite, and washing away burning acid sprayed into my eyes" states author Melba Pattillo Beals in this horrifying yet fascinating remembrance of her youth.

Warriors Don’t Cry is Beals’ inside story about the depth of the hostility encountered at Central High by the Little Rock Nine—the African American students who integrated Little Rock’s all-white high school in 1957. Although three years had passed since the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in education with its Brown v. Board of Education decision, Little Rock’s white community—considered "moderate" by Southern standards—was dragging its feet. The hard-core segregationists were bolstered by Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus who fought the integration, even calling out the National Guard to block the African American students’ entry into the school.

This book, which draws heavily on diary entries, is an intensely personal account of a young woman robbed of her childhood and transformed by necessity into a "warrior." When Melba crossed that threshold into Central High each day, she could expect to be spat upon, kicked in the shins, sprayed with ink, pushed down the stairs, called "nigger," laughed at, scalded by hot water, and worse by white students who had as their goal her permanent exit from Central. Beals, knowing that if she fought back she would be expelled, adopted the Gandhian philosophy of conquering her oppressors through patience, persistence, and a steadfast belief in justice. She understood that the nine children’s ability to persist (one of them was expelled mid-year) would be critical in determining the future course of civil rights and race relations in America.

In Warriors Don’t Cry, Beals presents us with a classic case of good vs. evil. If this were fiction, the outcome would hang in the balance; yet we have the advantage of knowing how the story ends. Writing four decades after the Little Rock Nine’s ordeal, Beals reflects thoughtfully on the changes she has seen since that time. "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? ... [S]chool integration is still not a reality, and we use children as tender warriors on the battlefield to achieve racial equality."


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