Melba Pattillo Beals

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Melba Pattillo was born in Little Rock, Arkansas on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941. Her parents were divorced when she was seven, and her mother and grandmother both strong, intelligent women had a great impact on her life. Melba's mother, Dr. Lois Pattillo, was an English teacher, and one of the first black students to integrate the University of Arkansas, graduating in 1954.

Melba was 12 years old on May 17, 1954 the date the Supreme Court ruled in "Brown vs. Board of Education" that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Just over a year later, on May 24, 1955, the Little Rock school board adopted a plan to limit integration to Central High School, but claimed this would not occur for another two years.

When the time came to sign up for Central High, Melba raised her hand and put her name on the sheet. "I thought about all those times I'd gone past Central High, wanting to go inside... I reasoned that if schools were open to my people, I would also get access to other opportunities I had been denied, like... sitting on the first floor of the movies theater" (Beals, 1994).

Then, on Dec. 1 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Melba knew that "our people were stretching out to knock down fences of integration" (Beals, 1994). Mrs. Parks'action and the tremendous response from the community gave Melba hope for change, despite Governor Orval Fauvus'refusal to allow integration in public schools.

But it was Melba's first trip to Cincinnati, Ohio in early August, 1957 that gave her a glimpse of life without segregation. On this unforgettable trip to visit relatives, Melba went to the movies with a white friend, ate at lunch counters and fancy restaurants, walked through department stores, and used "regular" bathrooms. For the first time, white people from her relatives'neighbors to salespeople and waiters were friendly and treated her with respect.

Melba wanted to stay forever, but the trip was called short when they received the call from Little Rock that she was among nine black children who would be entering Central High that fall. Inspired by the life she saw in Cincinnati, Melba returned to Arkansas with the conviction that one day she would receive the same respect in Little Rock.

Of the original 17 students that had signed up for Central High, only nine Melba and eight other black students chose to stand up to the threats of violence and take on the challenge of integration. These nine childhood friends had much in common: they were all strong students, with strict, hardworking parents. But most of all, they were individualists with strong opinions.

The brave young students soon discovered that integration would mean a struggle to stay alive as Little Rock's segregationists rampaged and steadfastly refused to obey the law. In order to attend Little Rock's all-white Central High School in 1957, Melba and her friends faced the kind of mob brutality that compelled then-President Eisenhower to send combat-ready soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division to protect their lives.

Under the scrutiny of reporters who came from around the world to observe rampaging mobs block her entry to Central High and the explosive Little Rock school crisis, 15-year-old Melba Pattillo learned how to relate to the media; she also decided to pursue a career in journalism.

At seventeen, Melba began selling articles to major newspapers and magazines. She later received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. She worked as a news reporter for San Francisco's public television station, KQED, and for the NBC affiliate, KRON-TV.

Ms. Beals has appeared on national radio and television shows, and written numerous articles for periodicals like People and Essence. Her latest book, Warriors Don't Cry, tells her remarkable story of the 1957 struggle to integrate Central High, a turning point in America's history and the coming of age of our country.

Warriors has received rave reviews from numerous newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Beals, Melba Pattillo. (1994). Warriors Don't Cry. New York: Pocket Books.

  • Subjects:
    African American History, Civil Rights, Civics and Government, Constitution and Bill of Rights, Civil Rights Movement, African American, Women's History and Experience, Black History Month, Women's History Month
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