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They Were Only Children : The violence recounted in an Arkansas student's memoir is an eye-opener : WARRIORS DON'T CRY: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High, By Melba Pattillo Beals (Pocket Books: $22; 312 pp.)

July 03, 1994|Jervey Tervalon | Jervey Tervalon is the author of "Understand This," a novel set in South - Central L.A

On the first day of class in the fall of 1957, in Little Rock, Ark., a mob bent on preventing nine black students from entering Central High School chased the new students to the principal's office. There the children heard their life being debated between two sheriffs:

"What are we gonna do about the nigger children?"

"The crowd is moving fast. They've broken the barricades. These kids are trapped in here."

"Good lord, you're right," another voice said. "We may have to let the mob have one of these kids so we can distract them long enough to get the others out."

"Let one of those kids hang? How's that gonna look? Niggers or not, they're children and we got a job to do."

Fortunately, the kids were saved and lived to fear for their lives for the duration of the school year.

Melba Pattillo Beals' memoir of integrating Little Rock's Central High School, "Warriors Don't Cry," is a painful but important document that shows how difficult the path of racial integration has been for this country and, more important, how high the price has been for families in the vanguard of the effort.

The memoir starts with Melba's return to Central High after a 30-year absence to be reunited with her fellow Little Rock warriors of integration as honored guests of then-Gov. Bill Clinton. The bitter memories of her year at Central High hadn't been numbed even after years of progress on the racial front.

But how could they be numbed? What Beals had experienced as a child was one step from ethnic cleansing. It seemed that what kept her and her fellow black students from being lynched that very first day of classes at Central High was sheer luck.

Even before the yearlong nightmare of integrating Central High commenced, life in Little Rock was far from a picnic for the black community. Beals had a healthy fear of whites and of the harm that was often inflicted on her family and community by them.

"By the time I was 3 years old I was already so afraid of white people that when my red-haired, white-skinned cousin came to baby-sit, I hid beneath mother's bed." And though Beals' childhood is filled with such memories, she and her family show Gandhi-like resilience and self-control in the face of vicious, racist treatment.

The comparison to Gandhi is more than coincidence. Beals' grandmother, India, is a follower of Gandhi's teachings and impressed upon her granddaughter the importance and need for personal sacrifice to accomplish even modest social change; this willingness to sacrifice is a major theme of the book. Beals is in every sense a nonviolent warrior of integration.

"By the 10th day, their nonstop torture made me feel as if I were losing my mind. I had to keep telling myself what Grandma said: I couldn't lose my mind because God is my mind. Still, I imagined I had one of those machine guns television gangsters use. I would fire round after round . . . to clear my thoughts. I would have to do more prayer for them and for me. I know guns were forbidden even in my thoughts."

Frankly at times it seems as if Beals was more frightened of disappointing her grandmother than of the wrath of the racists of Little Rock. Interestingly enough, though the grandmother encouraged Beals to follow Gandhi's example, she herself slept nights by the front window, shotgun in hand, ready to defend her sleeping family from midnight marauders.

Because of the love of her grandma and mother, the lack of support from her father is hardly felt. It also helps that Melba Beals' mother is a teacher and makes enough of a salary so that when the girl's father runs in to voice his disapproval of the integration effort (and disappears again), it has no apparent affect on the family.

Even with the backing of Beals' family and as much encouragement and logistic support as she receives from the NAACP and the churches, it is astonishing that the mother and grandmother would consent to send their daughter to such a hellish year at Central High. As the book is constructed, vivid first-person recollections of torture and diary entries of a young girl tested to a degree no adult should be, it stands on its own, a testament to sacrifice and patience.

Yet I want to know more. I want to know exactly what the mother and grandmother were thinking. Were they willing to lose their child for racial progress? Even years after having weathered what must have been one of the worst experiences of her life, Beals still admits to being influenced by what happened at Central High. When she married, she chose a white military man--a protector who, she says, seems much like Johnny Black, the soldier from the 101st Airborne, her bodyguard who made those first few months bearable. When Johnny Black was called away, it almost broke her spirit.

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