The Little Rock Nine

ED 6010 is the most racially diverse classroom I have ever been in. Let that disheartening statement sink in a moment. It is in part because Foundations of Education is a small class, without a doubt the smallest I have ever known, with 11 students. Three black students, eight white students, one white professor. I have never attended a class in which 25 percent of those present were African-American, a sad testament to the lack of diversity in both Overland Park, Kansas, where I grew up, and Springfield, Missouri, where I attended undergraduate school. These thoughts stirred within me because a memoir, Warriors Don’t Cry, was still fresh in my mind when I first entered ED 6010.

Warriors Don’t Cry is Melba P. Beals’ harrowing account of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. She and eight other black students attended the formerly all-white Central under the statutes of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, which determined the unconstitutionality of racial segregation in public schools. While it is perhaps a miracle the “Little Rock Nine” survived the unimaginable terrors of physical and verbal abuse inflicted during their year at Central, the Supreme Court case that made it possible was a miracle in itself. Amazingly, the Brown case of 1954 was a unanimous decision. It shocked the white world. “Chief Justice Earl Warren worked hard to achieve the compromises necessary for a unanimous decision because he believed that the full court should be behind such a dramatic order” (Fraser, 2010, p. 293). The rulings of many court cases balance on the edge of a knife,with a single deciding vote tipping the rulings one way or the other. How monumental, that such a controversial case, arguably the most controversial in decades, would be without dissent.

The Court declared, referring to black students, “to separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone” (Fraser, p. 294). While the decision determined that separate could never be truly equal,a great step forward to be sure, the Court did not immediately order desegregation. “A year later the Court finally ordered school desegregation, but only ‘with all deliberate speed.’ The lack of a timetable encouraged the southern states to resist” (Norton et al., 2005, p . 810). And resist they did.

Little time needs to be spent explaining why white crowds gathered around Central High to protest and physically prevent integration, or why whites from other states journeyed to swell their numbers, as did local cops, or why Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus sent 250 National Guardsmen to block Melba and her friends from entering the high school. Centuries of racial prejudice and hatred explain that. Each generation taught the next how to think and behave towards blacks. Melba was struck, bruised, and burned with acid. She was ridiculed and tormented and spat on. Most of her abuse was inflicted by white students within Central. The other eight suffered just as badly. Melba recalls being cornered and persecuted in a school bathroom:

I looked up to see a flaming paper was 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….

“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 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 (Beals, 1994, p. 164).

I was struck by how much worse each day became for Melba. Perhaps it was my knowledge that her efforts would lead to change and would better the lives of African-Americans in the long term, but I fully expected conditions to improve for the Little Rock Nine given enough time. How wrong that assumption was. The death threats continued and intensified. The name-calling persisted. Efforts to physically and mentally harm the black students only became more organized, more desperate, more sinister. After hundreds of pages depicting such abuse, it hurt to read more, yet it continued. Melba and the others went through hell, and their struggle naturally evokes pity.

I did not at all expect to feel pity toward the white students, the abusers themselves. Do not misunderstand me, each tormentor is responsible for his or her horrific actions, and justice should be wrought upon them all. They will have God to answer to. At the same time though,those kids were indoctrinated. They were not born with a hatred for the black race. Their parents and teachers taught them to hate. They taught them that blacks were inferior to whites, that it was acceptable to disrespect, cheat, and abuse them. I pity the kids because they were brainwashed,molded into bigots by people who were molded in the same fashion. Researcher Kenneth B.Clark’s findings, which influenced the Brown case, stated, “Children learn social, racial, and religious prejudices in the course of observing and being influenced by the existence of patterns in the culture in which they live” (Fraser, p. 297).

The cycle continues today in some families. Perhaps that will be the most important thing to keep in mind when I am an educator. Besides parents, teachers are the strongest influences and role models to children. It will be my responsibility to inspire attitudes of equality and respect and understanding, even—no, especially—if it challenges what students are hearing at home.

In her own home, Melba received support from her brother, her mother, and especially her grandmother. It was a different story in the black community as a whole. While some neighbors approved of the Nine’s actions as a catalyst for change, others opposed it and ostracized Melba and the others. After the school year ended and the Nine had spent time around the country being honored for their accomplishment, Melba recalls, “We had come home, to Little Rock, back to being called ‘niggers’ by the segregationists and those ‘meddling children’ by your own people. Our friends a neighbors resented not only the school closure but most especially the negative economic impact our presence in that school had on our community” (p. 307). Some African-Americans, like Melba’s distant father, opposed what the Nine were doing because it made Little Rock even more dangerous for their people. Vandalism and violence against blacks increased, and neighbors saw Melba as only inflaming an already tense relationship. Not only was it more dangerous on the streets of Little Rock, blacks were rejected in grocery stores and employment positions even faster and more harshly than usual, in retribution for integration.

Melba felt the strain of ostracism as keenly as that of racism. She was abandoned by her old group of friends, who were “not willing to die” (Beals, p. 216) with her. She was not invited to parties, and her sixteenth birthday party was a lonely one. She found strength and friendship in the other members of the Nine: Elizabeth, Ernest, Gloria, Carlotta, Minnijean, Terrence,Jefferson, and Thelma. Unfortunately, the situation grew more dire for Melba. Her mother was fired from her teaching position. “Her superiors told her they were taking away her contract because she had allowed me to participate in the integration of Central” (p. 286), Melba writes. Only through exposing the mistreatment to the press did Melba’s mother get her job back (p.294). Throughout the integration process, the press would prove to be a primary force in raising awareness, stirring sympathy for the Nine, and keeping the situation at Central from spiraling into chaos. With the world watching, perhaps white supremacists were held back from their most evil designs.

Melba’s faith throughout this crisis was astounding, and it clearly sustained her. She declares on page two, “The experience endowed me with an indestructible faith in God.” Her diary entries are often prayers to God, and she often mentions times when she prayed for Him to keep herself and her family safe. Trusting God during times of crisis and pain is possibly the most difficult thing to do as a Christian; it is often easier to blame God. Melba’s reliance on Him is as admirable as it was steadfast.

Melba and the other eight would never have gotten in the front door of Central without President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalizing the Arkansas National Guard and sending in the101st Airborne Division to protect the students and see to it integration took place. Governor Faubus challenged the authority of the Court and of the federal government in his effort to enforce segregation, and Eisenhower made a bold move in sending troops to demonstrate the power of federal over local government. There is controversy over the president’s thoughts and motivations, but Melba, her mother, and her grandmother looked upon him favorably for the decisions he made. Melba herself appreciated the Screaming Eagles’ protection, particularly that of her bodyguard Danny, and was sad to see them go (Beals, p. 162). Melba understood that Eisenhower was enforcing the decree of the Court (Beals, p. 145). However, I believe writing off Eisenhower as solely standing up for the federal government’s authority, as some might, is too simplistic.

After World War II, “Ike” was the most popular man in America (Kunhardt et al., 1999,p. 36) and throughout his presidency, he would avoid strong stances on controversial issues to protect that popularity (p. 40). He wanted to avoid dealing with civil rights directly, preferring to let race relations improve without government interference, but it is clear that Ike “disapproved of racial segregation” (Norton et al., p . 810). Ike was concerned about losing party votes in the South by acting on civil rights (Norton et al., p . 810). Boldly stepping in to force integration upon an angry southern populace ran counter to Ike’s way of doing things. He put aside concern for politics, a graver concern with popularity, and an aversion to controversial issues to do what he knew was right. Melba writes, “He had stepped over a line no other President dared cross” (p.309).

According to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, Ike disliked racism, purposefully appointed federal judges who believed in civil rights, forced civil rights legislation through Congress, officially integrated the White House and the Army, and fought discrimination in the workplace (EMC website, 2011). In 1953 Ike said, “I believe as long as we allow conditions to exist that make for second-class citizens, we are making of ourselves less than first-class citizens” (EMC website, 2011). There was more to Ike’s decisions than the federal-state battle. He honestly wanted change and cared about the fate of the Nine.

So did Melba’s protector, a young member of the 101st Airborne named Danny. Judging from Melba’s accounts, Danny proved to truly care about her well-being. Though a soldier under orders, Danny’s commitment to Melba surpassed his instructions. This is possibly due to the soldiers being from the North, where more respectful attitudes toward African-Americans existed. “He looked me directly in the eye” (p. 135) is the first description Melba offers of Danny. A short, poignant sentence. If nothing else, it speaks of respect, even before they knew one another. Danny would later make sure Melba’s tormentors saw him and would stare them down (Beals, p. 136). He washed out her eyes when a student doused them in acid (Beals, p.173). He protected her at every turn, but also offered her advice. That was certainly not in his job description. “’Patience,’ Danny said. ‘In order to survive this year you will have to become a soldier. Never let your enemy know what you are feeling’” (Beals, p. 161). Melba writes:

I feel specially cared about because the guard is there. If he wasn’t there, I’d hear more of the voices of those people who say I’m a nigger…that I’m not valuable, that I have no right to be alive. Thank you, Danny (p. 145).

Clearly, Melba thought much of Danny and cared about him. I believe their relationship was special to both. Danny could easily have withheld advice or not spoken and looked upon her with respect. Those were not his orders. He did them anyway. Though Melba admits, “I will never know if he only behaved that kindly because he was a great soldier or a good person or both” (p. 202), Danny’s actions indicate he sincerely wanted to help and protect a student fighting for change.

Change was Melba’s aspiration. Throughout Warriors Don’t Cry, Melba often mentions the northern city of Cincinnati, which she visited before integration began. It implanted a vision in her mind of what life in the South could be like:

For me, Cincinnati was the promised land. After a few days there, I lost that Little Rock feeling of being choked and kept in “my place” by white people. They weren’t in charge of me and my family in Cincinnati. I felt free, as though I could soar above the clouds (p. 30).

She refers to Cincinnati in her dairy on September 3, 1957, the first time the Little Rock Nine attempted to enter Central High:

Dear Diary,

It’s happening today. What I’m afraid of most is that they won’t like me and integration won’t work and Little Rock won’t become like Cincinnati, Ohio (p. 46).

Melba discovered in Ohio that African-Americans could walk with pride, without having to step off the sidewalk for white people, that bathrooms and other facilities were integrated, and that white people smiled at her and treated her family with decency (Beals, p. 30-31). She found equality. Her aspiration was to bring similar change to Little Rock. In the beginning, Melba believed that just by crossing into the white world she could present herself and show whites there was no need to treat her differently. She was young, and her naïve belief that change could come quickly is understandable. How devastating it must have felt, after Melba survived an entire year at Central, when “Governor Faubus had the last word. He closed all of Little Rock’s high schools” (Beals, p. 306-307) to prevent another year of mixed classrooms. Personally, I felt a twinge of relief reading that. Melba and her friends would be spared another year of hell. The move, from a certain point of view, also reeked of desperation and defeat on Governor Faubus’ part.

Despite the setback for integration, Melba can rest assured today in the knowledge she was a significant part of the civil rights movement. She wrote Warriors Don’t Cry based on her diary entries, local newspapers kept from the time period, and her memory. Though memory can fade and change over time, I believe the story she has told is accurate and trustworthy, and is supported through other sources. Besides, far worse things have been done to African-Americans in this country’s history. Melba writes, “I marvel at the fact that in the midst of this historic confrontation, we nine teenagers weren’t maimed or killed” (p. 309). Her purpose in writing this gripping narrative was not to glorify herself.

I believe she wrote this because most history textbooks devote mere sentences to the story of the Little Rock Nine. The college textbook A People and a Nation provides a paragraph (Norton et al., p . 810). One paragraph can never explain what truly happened at Central High, and Melba knew the need existed to tell the whole story, no matter how painful it was for her and regardless of how painful it is to read it.

Melba writes:

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 the past undo my good intentions. Now enough time has elapsed to allow healing to take place, enabling me to tell my story without bitterness (p. xvii).

It took over 30 years to write. It took hours to read.

Melba Beal’s legacy can be seen in ED 6010, a peacefully integrated course. This Foundations of Education class is welcoming and respectful. I am blessed by both where I live and the time in which I live. In 1954, de jure integration was achieved. In 2011, de facto integration is incomplete in many parts of the nation, but much improved in 60 years,with significant thanks owed to Melba Beals, the rest of the Little Rock Nine, and their struggle.

 

Reference List

Beals, M. P. (1994). Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Fraser, J. W. (2010). The School in the United States. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kunhardt Jr., P. B., Kunhardt III, P.B., Kunhardt, P. W. (1999). The American President. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

No author. (2011). Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission website. Retrieved from http://www.eisenhowermemorial.org/Civil-Rights.htm

Norton, M.B., Katzman, D. M., Blight, D. W., Chudacoff, H.P., Logevall, F., Bailey, B., Paterson, T. G., & Tuttle, W. M. (2005). A People and a Nation. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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