Little Rock Nine member speaks in Greenwich
Published 5:11 pm, Friday, January 12, 2018
GREENWICH — Fifteen-year-old Melba Patillo Beals looked at the hundreds of white faces crowded before the doors of her new high school. The year was 1957 and this was Little Rock, Arkansas, a city where “colored” people rode in the back of the bus and the fear of the Ku Klux Klan was a daily reality.
Beals grew up stepping off the sidewalk when white people walked past. She ate at a separate lunch counter from white people.
But the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 had ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional and now, three years later, a resistant Little Rock was being forced to change.
As Beals looked across the crowd, she saw Elizabeth, one of eight other black students who decided to attend Central High School with her, walking toward the school’s steps. Then, Beals saw the men.
They were white men with coils of rope — rope meant for nooses — looped around their shoulders. They chased Elizabeth. And then they chased Beals.
The white men tore the jacket off Beal’s mother’s back, but she wriggled out of it. Mother and daughter ran down the road with the men, steps behind them, yelling what they would do the women when they caught them.
Finally, Beals and her mother reached their car. Beals hit the gas, reversing down the street as men pounded on their windshield when they passed. Shaking, Beals drove them home to safety.
“The word integration is a much bigger word than I thought it was,” Beals, now 76, told Sacred Heart Greenwich students on Friday.
As part of the school’s Martin Luther King Day celebration, Beals, one of the “Little Rock Nine” known for integrating public schools in Arkansas, described her experience growing up in the Jim Crow South and attending a nearly all-white high school in the face of dangerous opposition.
Even as a young child, equality was something that Beals dreamed of. She used to sit on the curb and wait for the stork who delivered her to her parents to pick her up and take her somewhere, anywhere but Little Rock.
When Beals heard that Central High School would be accepting black students, she grabbed an application, forged her parents’ signatures and signed herself up. Her parents found of she would be attending the all-white high school on the news.
“Why did I want to go to Cental High School? What is it that you enjoy in a white childhood from the moment of birth?” Beals asked her mostly white audience. “Personal equality. It means that you go where you want, you choose where you live — disregard certain limits — you have choice. People who don’t have equality don’t have choice.”
But opposition to integration was everywhere. White people went to black events to discourage black students from coming to Central High School. Some black people were hanged, Beals remembered. Every night at dusk her family locked the doors and pulled down the shades, knowing the police would not save them from the Klan — the police were the Klan.
The mobs that chased Beals on her first day trying to attend Central High School scared her, but Beals went back. On her second day going to Central, police escorted Beals and the rest of the Little Rock Nine into the school. Students lined the hallways and spat on them. They jeered at the black students and yelled at Beals that she probably just wanted to find a white husband.
Beals and the Little Rock Nine made it to class that day, but by mid-day the protests outside the school had grown so loud that teachers took the Little Rock Nine into the school basement for their protection. Police drove them home in cars with guns that afternoon.
Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus also opposed integration and the next time the Little Rock Nine tried to go to school, he used Arkansas National Guardsmen to block them from attending. President Dwight Eisenhower order federal troops to Little Rock to escort Beals and her black classmates to school.
“The longer we stayed, the more ugly and awful the tortures got,” she said.
But Beals continued attending Central High School despite the racism she faced. At 17, she began selling articles to major newspapers and magazines. As an adult she pursued a career as a broadcast and print journalist in California, where she still lives. Her latest book, “Warriors Don’t Cry,” tells her story of the 1957 struggle to integrate Central High.
Speaking in Greenwich, one of four towns in Connecticut violating the state’s racial balance law aimed at reducing school segregation, Beals said that the United States has made “philosophical progress” since the segregation of the 1950s.
Many reports show that schools today are about as segregated as they were 50 years ago, often due to factors like housing.
In Greenwich’s neighborhood school system, some elementary schools in eastern Greenwich have student bodies that are more than 90 percent white, whereas two elementary schools in western Greenwich have more than 70 percent minority students, according to Greenwich Public Schools enrollment reports.
Beals said there is more to be done to promote the integration of and understanding between black and white communities, despite steps forward.
“I am freer today than I ever was in 1941,” Beals said. “Today, we are going backwards, but if you hit me or you hang me, I can go to a police (officer) and get some help. Back then, I had no one to ask for help. Today, I have a voice.”
Beals urged students to view all people as God’s creations without judgment or intolerance.
“The solution to anything you have is gratitude and love,” she said. “There is no solving the problem through violence.”
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