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'They Didn't Want Me There': Remembering The Terror Of School Integration


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. In 1957, three years after the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional, nine black students were chosen by the NAACP to try and integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Enrolling was one thing. Attending was something else.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We just got a report here on this end that the students are in.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Yelling, unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Unintelligible). Turn it that way. (Unintelligible). You can see...

DAVIES: The students were met by an angry white mob. And it took the presence of federal troops to get them into classes for more than one day. Our guest today is Melba Pattillo Beals, one of those students who came to be known as the Little Rock Nine. She wrote in her book "Warriors Don't Cry," that every day, she got up, polished her saddle shoes and went off to war. After that school year, Pattillo Beals went to California, where she got an education and pursued careers as a TV journalist, magazine writer, communications executive and university professor.

But as you'll hear, her year at Central High left emotional scars that were long-lasting. Melba Pattillo Beals has a doctorate in international multicultural education and was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. She's written a new memoir called "I Will Not Fear" and a book about her childhood for younger readers - it's called "March Forward, Girl."

Well, Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's good to have you. You say, in your new book, that you became aware of discrimination at the age of 3 growing up in Little Rock. Boy, that's...


DAVIES: That's young. How did you become aware?

BEALS: Essentially by watching my parents and by seeing them freeze up when we go places, by seeing the difference in their behavior in my presence in the home, in church and around each other, versus their behavior when we went to the grocery store, which was around the corner. That would be my first little glimpse of a world beyond my home - the grocery store.

It would also be when the insurance man visited my house, and I would see how my father went into the back room and armed himself. And this is what he'd choose - to take this brush and this cloth. And he cleaned off his shotgun because he was steamed at the way that the insurance man and the milkman and all these white delivery men treated my mother. My mother was very beautiful. She looked perhaps Hawaiian or - she's partially American-Indian, so she had sort of wavy hair to her waist and really beautiful skin and all of this. She did not look as though she were particularly black.

And they would come to the house. And as they were trying to collect or deliver whatever, they would, like, flirt with her. And I could watch my father's response, which was that he was helpless, powerless. But oh, was he (unintelligible) steamingly angry. I watched my mother's response, which was to walk a very thin line - to push them away, to get rid of them but, at the same time, not to really annoy them. Do you know what I mean?

DAVIES: You write that you grew up with a lot of fear. What were you afraid of?

BEALS: Every single time day turned to night, I was frightened that the Klan would ride. From a very early age, again, I watched the parents around me pull the shades, quiet us all down to make our house look as though we were being very good Negroes, pull us in, pull anything from the outside that looked as though we were engaged in any activities they would object to. I watched this routine go on for all of my early life.

And I watched how it was when we went into stores - how my grandmother grabbed my hand and squeezed it so tight it hurt, how we were not allowed to touch things. When I was 5 and 4 and 3, if I went down town shopping, I couldn't touch anything - not the clothing, not the groceries, not anything. And in some of the grocery stores - we only had a couple that we could go to, first of all. And secondly, when you got there, Grandma couldn't, like, reach for things. She would tell a clerk what he wanted, and he would touch it because they didn't want black people touching all the merchandise, say, along a certain line, OK?

So he would give her what she needed, and then they would form a line to pay for it. And the line in which you stood to pay for it - at any moment, a white person can walk up and get in front of you in line...


BEALS: ...And you can't say a thing.

DAVIES: And they wouldn't want you to touch things because an item that you had touched would not be acceptable to a white customer.

BEALS: Would not be salable, would not be - yeah, right.

DAVIES: Right. Let's move to 1957, when the Supreme Court had ruled that the separate but equal doctrine for public education did not hold, that - and integration was called for. And there was this move to integrate Central High School in Little Rock. First of all, just describe what the differences were between that high school, which was all white, and the high school that you attended?

BEALS: The high school I attended was called Horace Mann. It had been built recently. The white populace decided, in order to appease black people so that we wouldn't even want integration, they would build a new high school called Horace Mann. Now, unfortunately for us, Horace Mann was built like a school - it was actually copied, I understand, off of a school in Florida, meaning for me to go from my classroom to the bathroom or from my classroom to the next classroom, I had to go outdoors in this hallway which was exposed to the weather. Do you know what I mean?

And so - but it got freezing cold in Arkansas. And so why would you build a school like this for Little Rock school kids? But anyway, and my school was one story, limited in its size, with a fairly OK library but very, very minimal kinds of equipment. What would happen would be every September, we would get a couple of truckloads of stuff that was used by the kids in the white high school. So that could be, you know, a three-legged table, slimy typewriter, used books. And the teacher would dig into these things with great gratitude, and we would move ahead. I wanted to wonder what the other high school was like.

Well, it was seven stories in height - Central High School was. It was four blocks - let's see, eight blocks in diameter, in terms of its measurements. It was, I think, ranked eighth in the nation in terms of its physical building. One of its top floors was completely contributed to music and bands. It had a floor which was nothing but apartments to teach you home economics. It's everything a girl could have. And to boot, many of its students went on to the top eight universities in the country, showing you, thus, the caliber of instructors it had. So it was highly ranked, Central High School.

DAVIES: So nine students - nine African-American students were selected for the - to try and integrate Central High School. How did you get to be one of them?

BEALS: Really, there were 116 students, and then it sort of whittled down to nine by people being frightened and people being threatened because by this time, the White Citizens' Council had nominated a committee of white people to go door to door, contact you through your doctor, contact you through whomever to get to you to tell you, oh, now, you know, you don't want to integrate. But eventually, to qualify - in the beginning, to qualify, you had to have good grades, and you had to have a record of not fighting, not talking back, a record of being a good student behavior-wise and academically.

DAVIES: And you had to volunteer. You stepped up to do this.

BEALS: Oh, amen.

DAVIES: So this was a rocky start to the integration of Central High School. You want to just tell us about the first day when you and your mom went, thinking you were going to get into the high school?

BEALS: When we walked up behind this big crowd, we realized ah, ha, ha, ha, we have really done something that we shouldn't have done. We anticipated that the people were all on tippy-toe, looking across the street - for what? - we didn't know. Let's us go look. So we walked up behind this crowd that was probably six people deep. There were thousands of people there. And we tried to go through because we were going to go across the street and go to the school.

And right away, these guys started - hey, you know, we got us a nigger right here to hang, right here. No need looking across the street to get that one. We got one here. And it went downhill from there. They started chasing us. We started running. We had parked the car at the end of that block, and we had to make our way to this car. And I thought for sure we wouldn't make it.

They got close to my mother - close enough to my mother that they grabbed her jacket off of her. At one point, they made her drop her valise, and she picked it back up because she was dressed to go to school. She was a schoolteacher. And we get to the car just by - you know, my grandmother said, look, if you're ever in a really tight place, understand that at every moment of your life, God is as close to you as your skin. You have but to pray, and he will show you that he's there, and he will help you. So I'd never tested that. And so I'm 15, and I think to myself, aha, it appears to me that this is the time - you know what I'm saying? - because these guys have ropes, and they're directly behind me, and they're chasing, they're calling me all sorts of names. And they're saying what they're going to do with us before they hang us, right?

And so I - you know, I started to pray. And I prayed out loud, as loud as I possibly could, hoping that this would facilitate God's hearing me. And I thought, how is he going to, you know, fix this? Because we couldn't call the police - we knew that. What would the police do? They would help the other people. And so I thought, well, how will we get past this? And it was that - this was an unpaved sidewalk, and there were all sorts of bushes and branches and things across the walkway.

And whereas we saw these two things, I suppose the gentlemen behind us, who were so angry, with their ropes in the air and their - you know, they didn't. And so they fell. And just for an instant, that gave us one instant to get to the car.

We got to the corner, and my mother had earlier said, go, drive; here are the keys because she'd been teaching me to drive. And I got into the car, and we backed down that hill. I mean, just as she was getting in, this guy caught hold of the car door. They were banging on the front glass of the car. And we - I backed down that hill faster than I had ever driven forward.

DAVIES: And you...

BEALS: ...And turned around...


BEALS: ...And got away and got home, you know. And my grandmother said, you know, have you said thank you to God yet or, you know, what are you doing?

DAVIES: Wow. So your first attempt, you don't even get in the building. You barely escape with your life from this mob that was there.

BEALS: Right. And then the second attempt, we do get in.

DAVIES: Right, this - the second - it was a couple weeks later, right? And the Little Rock police escort (unintelligible).

BEALS: Well, yes, because we had - you had to give the courts time to say, look, here - to Governor Faubus - you know, we're going to do this, and no matter what you think, we're going to do it. Because he kept erecting troops in front of the school, and he was going through all sorts of machinations to stop it. And so this court order...

DAVIES: Maybe we should just mention here that governor, Orval Faubus, had the National Guard troops in front of the high school that day. And you might think they were there to protect the students. In fact, they were there to keep them out, right?

BEALS: Well, but we had to learn that because Elizabeth Eckford approached these guardsmen, thinking, you know, OK, well, they - they're going to escort us, say, this, you know, 150, 200 steps up to the stairs. No, no, no, no, no. They closed rank to keep her out. And she was the one who got spat upon until you could ring her clothing out, as she walked this, you know, block length from where they were in the middle to the corner and where - was eventually rescued by the Lorches, who were a couple.

DAVIES: So the second time you go back, some time has passed. There has been a court hearing, and the Little Rock police escort you into the building, but there's still a big mob outside, right?

BEALS: Huge mob. As we're being let out of this car on the side - I think it's 14th Street side - I hear all this noise again. I haven't been to many really big events in my life. But what I remember is, like, going to the rodeo or going to a parade or - you know, the rodeo, black folks would be segregated, but they'd be - we'd be present and be as thousands and thousands - we will - what I have very little to compare this noise to - would be like going to a huge football game.

And I'm hearing this crowd and their sawhorses. I see sawhorses holding them back, and I think, oh, boy. And, you know, if you've never been in a situation like this, you don't - how you're going to feel is odd. So I got out of the side of the car, and the police were escorting us up the side steps and everything like that.

And the thing is that once you step inside of Central High School, it's so huge. And it was so dark in there, you know. And we were greeted by this sort of middle-aged, dark-haired woman, who was quite, I would say, unwelcoming and said she was going to take us to where we needed to go, which, at that point, was to the office. And so we were marched down this hall of screaming, yelling, spitting young people - young white people, who didn't want us there - to the principal's office. And there we gathered, and they were going to assign us classrooms.

Now, understand, if you've got seven floors of classrooms, but you've only got nine people, and you've got all those hundreds of students, I think you would've put them in close proximity to each other so you could guard them. But no, no, no, no, no. They said, hey, you want integration, you going to get integration. And they sent us nine different ways. And that was really - as we said goodbye to each other, that was really horrible. And among us was Thelma Jean Mothershed, who had a very bad heart. At this point, she turns kind of a purpley (ph) blue, and she's sitting down on her haunches, and we're waiting for her to turn the right color again. So that was a little unsettling.

DAVIES: Our guest is Melba Pattillo Beals. She was one of nine African-American kids who, in 1957, participated in the hard-fought integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. She has a new memoir called "I Will Not Fear: My Story Of A Lifetime Of Building Faith Under Fire" and another memoir aimed at younger readers called "March Forward, Girl." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals. She was one of nine kids who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 - one of the early battles of the civil rights movement. She has a new memoir called "I Will Not Fear" and another memoir aimed at younger readers about her life. It's called "March Forward, Girl."

I want to talk about your experiences in classrooms in a moment. But you didn't make it all the way through this day, right? Tell us how this day was cut short.

BEALS: About - let see. I think it was in shorthand - Mrs. Pickwick.

DAVIES: Shorthand class.

BEALS: I remember her because she was a teacher who I felt safe in her room. She didn't say anything to me like, it's OK, but she conducted herself in a way which made me respect her sense of my humanness. And so - like, I suppose shortly after 11 - between 11, 11:30, something like that - this woman who had escorted us in came back to get us again and said, follow me, get up, follow me now, collect your books.

Now, all the while, I'd been in almost any classroom. Now, I was, one, exposed to the outside. I could hear this crowd, this mob that had gathered outside. And there was no doubt, there had to be hundreds of people out there. And so this woman collects us and takes us all to the office. And we get to the office, and they say that, look, we're going to have to somehow get you out of here. We have a problem. Mobs are beginning to burst into the school, and you're not safe, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, you know. And at the same time, they stick us into this side room while they confer with added policeman - some, I think, from North Little Rock. And, you know, you had lawmakers - I mean, law officers in there from all sorts of places, right?

And so they start to consult with each other. And I, Ms. Nosypot (ph) - that's why I grew up to be a news reporter - I put my ear in there because I want to know. Don't be consulting without me. And one guy says, well, look, you know, maybe what we're going to have to do is to put one out there, and we're going to have to let them hang that kid while we get the other eight out. At least we'll save eight. So by this, I know right away that, you know, we got a big problem here.

And then another white gentleman - tall - I believe to be assistant chief of police of North Little Rock, stood up and said, no, look, I'm a parent, I'm not doing this. I'm getting them all out. We're going. We're going to do it. And so he's the one who led us down the stairs of this huge castle-like building - Central High School - round, and round, and round and down into a basement. And I thought to myself, well, if you're ever going to be killed, this is where you're going to get it. And who were these white men with us, and what did they really want? Truth was, they were policemen - Little Rock and North Little Rock - truth was that they saved our lives.

DAVIES: So your first two attempts - you and these fellow students to get into Little Rock - into Central High School at Little Rock - actually didn't - you didn't even complete full days. You barely escaped with your lives from the mob. And President Eisenhower sent federal troops, the 101st Airborne, to make sure that you were escorted into the classes and kept safe. They got you in, but they couldn't follow you into classrooms. And I want you to tell us what it was like when you actually got into a classroom, and the soldiers were outside. How were you treated by the students? How did the teachers respond?

BEALS: Some of the teachers were, shall we say, OK. Or they were cordial. They were civil. Others were not. They let you know right away what they thought. And here I had to begin thinking about, how can I save my life during this class? Do I need to sit in the back or the front? Shall I sit where I can look at the soldier? Although, I could look at my soldier sometimes. He couldn't come through. He might signal me to move over here, do this, do that. But the fact of the matter was that I was, you know, completely open to whatever happened. And many of the classrooms that teach - not many - but some of the classes - the teachers were strong and they said, sit down. Don't touch her. Don't hit her. Others - they didn't care what happened, you know?

DAVIES: What kinds of things would students do in class?

BEALS: Light paper and take a match, light a piece of paper and then throw it on you. Particularly in study hall, they loved that trick. Hit you, throw things at you. A favorite thing was to do something to your back, smear peanut butter. And one of the most heinous crimes was to smear peanut butter and glumpy (ph) stuff under your seat, so that you didn't notice, really. When I was walking in class, I was sort of looking around my back when I would sit down in it.

And what they'd do is put glass in it. And the whole thing I'm discovering that you've done that. The whole thing of, you know, if you don't pull your dress down, then it's going to get into your thighs or wherever it gets - because it penetrates your clothes. It can penetrate your clothing. However you sit, unless you're wearing some heavy-duty jeans, you're going to be in trouble with that one - because they did that one several times.

DAVIES: Melba Pattillo Beals has a new memoir, "I Will Not Fear," and a book about her childhood aimed at younger readers called "March Forward, Girl." After a break, we'll hear more about her days at Central High School and how leaving Little Rock changed her life. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Melba Pattillo Beals, one of nine black students who were chosen to try and integrate Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. Beals has a new memoir called "I Will Not Fear" and a book for younger readers called "March Forward, Girl." When we left off, she was describing the harassment and physical assaults she faced from white students at Central High.

There were insults and racial epithets and verbal assaults constantly, I guess, and it -

BEALS: Constantly name calling, which, after a while, I have to say to you, becomes in some ways as painful or more than the physicality of the incident because you begin to question in your mind as a child, who am I? Who am I really?

DAVIES: But as you move through the halls and through gym class and around pep rallies, I mean, these weren't just verbal assaults. You were physically assaulted. In what ways were you harmed?

BEALS: Tripped - tripped up so you fall. The most dangerous way was, a gentleman passes you with a plastic toy gun, and you think, OK, I'm going to get wet. But you're not. You're going to get acid in your eyes. And that's what happened to me. And my bodyguard, who I don't name - I think I call him Johnny Black. Anyway, he caught my ponytail - I have really long hair - and he grabbed my ponytail and ran, forcing me to run, and jammed my face beneath the water fountain and ran water all over my eyes. And that's what saved my sight.

DAVIES: You mention you were assigned, actually, a member of the 101st Airborne, who was with you all the time in the hallway, as you write.

BEALS: Several members.

DAVIES: Right. Right. But they weren't able - like, in a case like that or when someone assaulted you - to intervene, to grab the offender or...

BEALS: Right. They couldn't do any of that. But, like, I had what are called primary, secondary and tertiary guards. Your primary guard was one nearest to you. Your secondary were two people who were out so many feet. And your tertiary were - they could be as many as six people, depending on what your day had been like. But they could never touch those other children. In some ways, they were just kind of like, you know, bullies that were, like, you know threatening them. They didn't - they were admonished that they couldn't touch other kids.

So, for example, when I went to the bathroom, one of the things I learned to do then, which I'm having to get out of doing now, which the doctor just lectured me about last Friday, was drink water - drink enough water - because my whole thing in Central High School was, if you don't drink water, you don't have to go to the bathroom. And so I really worked at that hard.

DAVIES: You didn't want to go to the bathroom because you weren't safe there.

BEALS: No, no because in the bathroom, like, I would be in my little concern, you know. And these ladies would come by, and then once again, we have the old let's light the papers - and at this point, they would get on either side of me and in front, and they would light notebook paper with matches, and then they would throw it in on you.

DAVIES: These would be showering down on you in the stall you're while somebody else...

BEALS: That's right.

DAVIES: Somebody else held the door so you couldn't get out.

BEALS: Exactly. And so I thought one day, well, OK, am I going to die here? What am I going to do? And a little voice said, throw them back, you idiot. Just throw them back. And that's what I did. I said, all righty, then, let's go girls. And I threw them back, and I said, hey, you know what? Get out of here. So, I mean, I really had to make a transition in my head. Do you want to live? And what are you willing to do to live? And you're going to have to defend your life every day. Those days of childhood, of sweetness, of being protected by the will of God - well, OK, that - there's been a transition here, my darling.

DAVIES: You know, I don't want to belabor this, but I just want people to understand how - what this was like. And I made a quick list of some of the ways that you were assaulted. I'm just going to read them here - knocked downstairs, spit upon, kicked on the shins, raw eggs poured over your head, acid thrown in your eyes, locker trashed, you were pushed against a wall and choked, hit across the back with a tennis racket so hard you spit up blood, pelted with snowballs that had large rocks in the middle. And this is just a partial list of the things that you and the other eight kids suffered. Did you report these things to anybody, to the school administrators? Did anybody do anything?

BEALS: In the beginning. In the beginning, we did report these kinds of attacks, but we learned quickly that nothing was ever going to be done about them. And I remember once watching this guy kick Terry, and we told the principal, and he said, you know, unless I see it myself personally or some teacher sees it, it's not valid. And so they weren't going to do anything to us because, you know, you had the white citizens' club. You had all these white parents who were on their case. And they wanted to get us out, and they figured if they were violent enough over a long enough period of time, that, you know, it would be OK.

DAVIES: You know, this was decades ago, of course, and I have to believe that many of those students who perpetrated this stuff feel pretty bad about it. Did you ever hear from any of them or the adults who should've put a stop to it?

BEALS: You know, Oprah had a bunch of us on, and one guy said - who - I wanted to go out with him afterwards - and there was a guy called John Sandhay (ph). I can't remember (unintelligible). He walked on my heels and did horrifying things. And there were several people there. Some of them apologized. Some of them said that they would never teach their children to be that way. And, you know, others said that we had ruined their high school for them, and we had ruined their senior year. And I imagine for many of those kids, we did ruin their senior year.

So there were sort of mixed feelings. But yes, later on, some did - some went on the Internet and said, oh, you know, Melba Beals could never have written her book because she such an - you know, she's so stupid, like most black people are stupid. And some have done very detrimental things. But the best thing for me to do is to ignore that. And I've always known, thanks to grandma and mother and God, who I really am. So that's all I need.

DAVIES: Melba Pattillo Beals was one of nine African-American students who participated in the hard-fought integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. She has two new memoirs. One is called "I Will Not Fear: My Story Of A Lifetime, Building Faith Under Fire" (ph). Another, aimed at younger readers, is called "March Forward, Girl." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals. She was one of nine African-American students who participated in the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. - one of the early battles of the civil rights movement. She has two new memoirs. One is, "I Will Not Fear: My Story Of A Lifetime Building Faith Under Fire" (ph). Another, which is oriented at younger readers, is called "March Forward, Girl."

I want to come back to Central High School for a bit. This became a day-to-day struggle. You say - you write at one point, you got up, and you went to war. Other the kids go to school. You went to school, but you went to war. How did it affect your life at home?

BEALS: Well, you know, I didn't feel - I felt unwarm, and my tummy hurt a lot. And my grandmother and mother tried their best. My father, by then, had - was gone, and my parents got divorced. And that was a hard thing to go through at the same time. But my grandmother and mother tried the best to bake ginger men, and take us downtown and to do the things that could make me feel like everything's going to be OK, normal. But most of the time at home, I worried.

Like, I would just have, like, Friday night free, and then Saturday, I'd start to worry again that Sunday's going to come, I'm going to have church, and then I have to go back to that place again. And so my life at home was not as sweet as it had been. Always, my mother and grandmother did the best to provide a loving home that they - as loving as they could possibly provide, you know?

DAVIES: But it followed you home, too, right? I mean, the phone would ring with insults and threats and...

BEALS: Consistently. Calling...

DAVIES: ...And there were two guys parked outside your house all the time.

BEALS: Two guys parked outside my house who threatened to do bad things. My grandmother was a shooter because she grew up partially in a reservation, and her relatives, her uncles and her father were Indians - American Indians. She knew she could shoot a gnat at a hundred yards. Do you know what I'm saying? And so she kept a shotgun, Mr. Higgenbottom, on her windowsill because people would come. And at one point, they did shoot into the house, as you'll remember early in the Little Rock incident. And they took away her green vase - her flower vase that was on the TV, shattered it.

And so it was fear. What occupied me was fear. I wasn't allowed to be an open teenager, to go where I wanted to go. I could no longer go to community center to hang. There was no hanging now because get it and do understand it - as one of the Little Rock Nine, some of my own people were not quite happy with me because they were losing their jobs. They were losing their salvation contributions at Christmastime. They lost...

DAVIES: Why were they losing their jobs? Why were they losing jobs and money?

BEALS: Because they worked for the same white people that my grandmother worked for. My grandmother was a maid - a dollar a day in white lady's kitchens. And she was careful never, ever to connect herself to me, one of the Little Rock Nine. She just would say, oh, my goodness. That's news. I wonder whose child that is - because she had a different last name than we did. She never told any of her white employers that that's who she was. And the black people were losing jobs consistently. I mean, Gloria Ray Karlmark's husband - sorry - father lost his job.

DAVIES: Your mom was fired - right? - from her teaching job...

BEALS: My mom lost her job. (Laughter) Her story's great because we had a black bishop in North Little Rock who'd been very powerful among the blacks and said to be powerful among whites. And my mother went to him and told him that her job had been taken away. And he told her, prepare to go back to work, just to simply mention his name. And she did. And he was correct.

DAVIES: Did any white students try and help or just extend a hand of friendship?

BEALS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. First of all, I want to say something clearly so that everybody doesn't get the wrong impression. There were sane, God-fearing white people in Little Rock, Ark., who honestly gave us help, some of them by giving jobs to the black people who'd been fired, by giving money to the black people who'd been fired, by giving them jobs, like, in their yards - mow here, mow there, mow everywhere. Go work for Uncle and Daddy in Chicago. Carlotta LaNier's father, for example, left Little Rock and went to work in Chicago. He went away to work. And he'd send money back and come back, sometimes, on the weekends. And so some of the white people were very generous in their attempts - in their efforts to help us. And that should really be clear.

DAVIES: You made it through that year. But in the end, you didn't go back to Central next year. What happened?

BEALS: The governor, Governor Faubus, closed all schools to keep us from returning in the school year of 1958. And that was difficult because he closed black schools. And those black children called us - they called me - and at church, treated us terribly because we'd taken away from them now their Christmas donations, their jobs, their homes and now their schools. And they were unhappy. Black kids were almost as unhappy as the white kids. Not as many of them were, but certainly, some of them were. They called us and said, you know, you guys let go.

DAVIES: So the governor closed the public schools in Little Rock as a gambit to somehow avoid integration. And you sat out most of that year because the ACLU wanted you to not enroll in another school because that would jeopardize the standing for the legal fight.

BEALS: Well, I sat out that year of 1958 because the NAACP, National Association...


BEALS: ...For the Advancement of Colored People, wanted us to sit out because they had a court case in process. But beginning in 1959, some of the kids would go back. By that time, some of us had been taken away. I was one of them who went to California.

DAVIES: Yeah. How did that have - a number of the Little Rock Nine felt they had to leave Little Rock. Why did you and others feel like you had to leave?

BEALS: Well, because in my case, they were specifically showing pictures and offering 10,000 dead, 5,000 alive.

DAVIES: Like a wanted poster - a wanted poster.

BEALS: Wanted posters spread all over the city because I was taller, bigger. Minnijean Brown and I were both taller, 5-feet-8, more speculative, more, you know, out front than some of the other kids were. And so I had, at this time, relatives in Georgia - I've always had relatives who pass for white. They come to town. They visit undercover on a holiday. And this I thought every family had, you know? And now I had relatives with red hair, blue eyes, freckles.

And so one of these relatives is actually - was actually in the Klan in another city and called my grandmother and my mother and said, look right here. You get her out of there now because we have a group coming up just to look for her. And you just need to know. You need to get her - they're serious about this. And so at this point, my grandmother and mother listened to the NAACP. The NAACP had always said some of us may have to leave. They sent out inquiries to different NAACPs across the country, saying, look. We need a home for these kids. We need some protection. Who's going to give it? In this case, out of Northern California came Dr. and Mrs. George McCabe, who would, until this moment of this day, be my parents and my family.

DAVIES: Now, this was a family that you moved to. They lived in a small town in California, right?

BEALS: They lived in a small town in California.

DAVIES: And you thought you were heading out to live with a black family.

BEALS: Oh, I was so thrilled when I got on that plane. I thought they're going to be a rich, black family. They're going to have Ebony magazines every month, unlike me, who can't afford them. They're going to have, you know, phones. And, oh, it's going to be wonderful. Well, I got off the plane, and this great group of white people chased me. They came running towards me, and I thought, oh, Lord, they're going to get me. And they came up, and they gave me a cross and a Bible. And they said they're with the Santa Rosa NAACP. I tell you I could not stop laughing inside. But outside, I was frightened to death because I thought, there are no white people in the NAACP. But they turned out to be.

And sure enough, they put me in this car, and they rode me across the Golden Gate Bridge. And I thought, you know, what's going to happen - I am always as a writer, I think, since childhood, imagining stories in my head. Are they going to take me across the bridge and hang me? But in fact, they took me to a farm. First, they took me to the city. And the neighbors didn't want me to stay in that house. So then I was taken to a second house, 6064 Melita Road. I shall never forget that address. And it was like a mini farm.

And that were - there was Dr. Mrs. George. Kay McCabe was petite with bangs. And she was mom, my mom, whom I think of every single day in my life. And my dad was George McCabe. Dr. George McCabe helped to found Sonoma State University. And my face - he and his friends were drawing pictures of it on butcher paper when I was with them. And he showed me what was possible. They were very poor. They didn't have a lot of money. But they were free. And it was that father, connected to my grandmother's lectures, that gave me a sense of equality.

DAVIES: You know, we don't have time to cover the story that the book tells. But, I mean, you got an education. And you were a mom and then adopted two sons and were a journalist and eventually a communications specialist. And you describe, you know, the discrimination you experienced in employment and housing. And I just have to ask you - given that you were - you know, you were played a path-breaking role in civil rights in this country. How much progress have we made as a nation towards overcoming this terrible legacy of racism?

BEALS: I thought by this time, when I'm 76, which, if you look back, is how many years? Fifty-six. I thought that it would be over. I thought that equality would be here. But I was wrong. I was really wrong. But how is life different now? I have a voice. And so we have indeed, my dear, come a very, very long way. You may hit me now on the way out of the studio, but I have a voice. I can report that.

And of the policemen who come to take that report, one of them's going to be OK. He's going to say, no, this shouldn't have happened. And he's going to do something about it. And so I'll take that for now. People beyond where I am will have to keep struggling, as those who came before me struggled. That's cool. I see progress. It certainly is not happening at the speed I want it to happen.

But there is incredible progress that I sit here before this camera, this microphone, that I was a news reporter, that you're interested in interviewing me regarding books which are on that topic, that people with white faces welcomed me here. And so yeah, we've made some progress from where I was. Baby, don't you ever forget that I rode in the back of the bus near the fussy, gassy engine. I drank from a water fountain marked color. Uh-uh. Don't forget it. And I never, ever forget it. So I've come a long, long way.

DAVIES: Melba Pattillo Beals, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BEALS: You're quite welcome. Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Melba Pattillo Beals is one of nine black students who were chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. Beals has a new memoir called "I Will Not Fear" and a book about her childhood for younger readers called "March Forward, Girl." Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new German film "In The Fade." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "SOUL STOMP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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