Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of #4 – Melba Pattillo Beals

If you know about the Little Rock Nine and the events of 1957, then you already may know this famous woman. But I imagine that most Americans would not recognize the name of Melba Pattillo Beals.

In 1957,  Melba Pattillo was just fifteen, and she was one of nine young African-American students to integrate Little Rock High in Arkansas. Her story is told in her memoir, Warriors Don’t Cry.

At the end of the school year before, she raised her hand when her teacher at her all-black school asked if any students were interested in attending all-white Central High. Melba did not tell her mother, so it came as a shock when she was selected to attend Central High the next year.

The courage and cruelty that Melba writes about in her memoir is moving and personal. She was threatened with hanging, rape and violence, and people hurled words at her that no child – no person – should have to endure. Such hatred. People threw rocks through her windows at home, and her grandmother sat watch more than once with a shotgun poised for defense.

The Arkansas National Guard closed the doors of Central to the Nine, keeping them out, until Pres. Eisenhower ordered in federal troops of the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the desegragation orders. The situation was so tense and violent that each black student had their own soldier who guarded them against extreme violence, but who could not interfere when the students were called vile names and otherwise tormented. Thumbtacks were placed in seats, people walked on the back of Melba’s heels until they bled, she was tripped, and every day, every hour, was a battle.

Her story would be impressive and inspiring, regardless, but to realize how terribly young all of the Nine were – and to know that they changed the world – is awe-inspiring. Ms. Beals’s story is one that could give any teenager inspiration, strength and comfort, and one that can educate any adult about the price paid by those brave young students all throughout the country who desegragated schools in the 1950s.

All of us are in her debt, and those of the rest of the Little Rock Nine: Thelma Mothershed, Minnijean Brown, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Gloria Ray, Ernest Green, and  Elizabeth Eckford.

© writingreading, 2009

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