Melba Pattillo Beals:
Breaking the Color Barrier
It's hard for Melba Patillo Beals to forget her first day at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. There aren't too many 15 year olds who get a police escort to school. It's also hard to forget an angry mob yelling things like "niggers go home" at your or being spat on.
That was the experience that Beals, along with eight other black teenagers, endured when they integrated Central High in September 1957 in what was a flash point for the growing civil rights movement that would change the nation's political and social structure.
After a federal judge ordered Central High desegregated in 1957, the NAACP recruited Beals and the other teens for the task. The move set up a confrontation with the angry white mobs, which were backed by Arkansas's governor, who had initially called out the National Guard to keep the teens from entering the school.
The teens fled for their lives when they were turned back by the mobs and the guns of the National Guard. The racial confrontation made international headlines. For three weeks there was a standoff until President Dwight D. Eisenhower, embarrassed by the negative coverage in the world press, ordered 1,200 paratroopers with the Army's 101st Airborne Division to escort the black teenagers to school and put down the mob.
"Mostly what I think about when I think back is how sad for somebody (to go through that) when they're 15," Beals told the San Francisco Examiner in 1997, a few days before the 40th anniversary of Central High's integration. "Because when you're 15 you want to be loved and accepted, and I just wasn't ready for the kind of response I would get coming to school."
But once they were in school, Beals and the other African American students faced racial insults and harassment on a daily basis. Beals said she even had acid thrown at her.
Beals saw going to Central High as an opportunity for a better education when she answered the NAACP's call for volunteers. At the time, Central was considered one of the best high schools in the country. It had all the resources, money, books and equipment that her old blacks-only school lacked. Beals didn't fully realize the social, political and personal ramifications of her heroic choice.
"We didn't go to Central to integrate," Beals said in an interview on Scholastic Inc.'s Web site. "We didn't go to Central to sit beside white people, as if they had some magic dust or something. I would not risk my life to sit next to white people . . . We went to Central for opportunity."
The following school year, Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus ordered Central closed in an effort to end integration. The Ku Klux Klan put a $10,000 reward out for anyone who hurt or injured one of the black teens.
Beals family decided she should leave. The NAACP asked for help in relocating Beals and she went to live with a white family in Santa Rosa, California. At her new high school, whites were the majority and Beals was one of handful of black students.
"I was in the same predicament (as Little Rock)," she said. "The difference was (other students) weren't hostile."
She wrote about her experiences living in a white family in the book "White is a State of Mind." Beals other books include "Warriors Don't Cry," which talks about the civil rights movement and her experience in Little Rock. Beals has also worked as a broadcast journalist. She lives in Sausalito, north of San Francisco.