As a “warrior” in the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, Melba Pattillo Beals and eight other black students tried not to cry because of the hatred spewed at them by segregationists, the indifference (except on a few occasions – 101st Airborne, Danny, Mrs. Pickwick, Link) shown to them by the white power structure, and the suspicion and fear of them by many people in the black community. They tried not to cry during that year of struggle and suffering but I found myself crying for them as I lived their year with them through Ms. Pattillo Beals memoir.
I am at Converse College because I am training to be an elementary school teacher. As I read this book I watched with keen interest the actions of the teachers at Central High School that Ms. Pattillo Beals mentions. From my own experiences as a student and as a teacher I know that teachers can change the lives of their students. I remember that Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, decided to become a teacher because she believed that children do not come into the world with hatred in their hearts. No, hatred was something that was taught by families and societies. She believed as a teacher that she could teach children to love. I believe that, too. In Ms. Pattillo Beals’s memoir, though, I saw only one teacher who tried to be fair. That teacher was Mrs. Pickwick, the shorthand instructor. She tried to be fair by using discipline to provide a safe place for learning to take place. I did not see any teacher who tried to teach love into the lives of students whose hearts were filled with learned hatred. Perhaps this was because of the ostracism and danger a white teacher would have faced at that time in that place if they had reached out to the nine black students in their school. But if all of the teachers in the school had been united in reaching out to the black students would the lives of all of people there have been changed? As a teacher am I willing to face ostracism and danger to reach out to all of my students and their families, am I willing to confront hate with love?
As I read the book I remembered again the importance of words and how we can use words to help people or to hurt people. At the most basic level in this story, words like “nigger” were used to hurt Ms. Pattillo Beals and the other eight students at Central High School. They were words of hatred and bigotry. They were words that not only hurt the hearts of the black students but they were words that incited violence against them. They were words that said, “You are less than human so I can treat you any way I want.” They were words that said, “Your life is worth less than the ‘Southern way of life’”. I am also reminded that words like “states rights” were used by the governor of Arkansas and other white people within the white power structure and that their use of words like these incited violence against the nine black students, too. I wonder if they knew that the words they used, that the ideals of which they spoke, were devastating to the lives of black people. Do I use words that hurt and devastate?
Ms. Patillo Beals’ grandmother, however, used words to help. She used the words of the Bible and the words of Ghandi to strengthen her granddaughter’s spirit, a strengthening that helped her granddaughter make it through a living hell. She used her own words to guide and to nurture her granddaughter. Do I use words to help, guide, and nurture?
The book helped me think again about how dehumanizing segregation was to black people. I was touched during the moments when Ms. Pattillo Beal’s thought that if white people would only make the effort to get to know her then they would know that she was a human being. In one of her journal entries she wrote
This is the day I hope to meet Governor Faubus face to face. I can’t decide what to say to him. If only he will listen to me one minute. I know I can make him understand there is nothing so bad about me that he shouldn’t allow white children to go to school with me.
The weatherman says it’s going to be 85 and up this afternoon. I’ll regret wearing my cotton blouse and quilted skirt, but they’re new and pretty. I want to look just right so the governor will know who I really am.
If we will just listen, if we will just spend time with each other, then we will know who we really are. This is my hope.
Toward the end of the book there is a headline from the Arkansas Gazette dated Tuesday, April 1, 1957 that read “NAACP ASKS STERNER ACTION BY CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL TROOPS.” The headline was followed by these words:
The NAACP renewed today its demand for more militant action by troops at Central High School. Otherwise we are confronted with the incredible spectacle of the government of the United States placing the burden of enforcing the order of its courts upon the slender shoulders and young hearts of eight teenage Negro students.
It is interesting to note that this headline appeared on April Fools Day. Was it not obvious that the burden of enforcing integration was “upon the slender shoulders and young hearts of eight teenage negro students”? This raises important questions that I have been asking myself as I have read the books for this class – Why did the burden of desegregation have to be carried by black children? Why did the burden of integration have to be carried mostly by black people? (I realize that there were “law-abiding whites who risked their lives” to help, as Ms. Patillo Beals wrote) As a white Southern liberal I still believe that integration makes a way for whites to begin to become more understanding of blacks and for blacks to begin to become more understanding of whites. I wonder, though, if it is right to expect black people (or any person of color) to integrate into white culture. Does this expectation say that white culture is somehow superior to black culture?
As I finished the book I was filled with wonder again that experiences like the ones of Ms. Pattillo Beals, Ms. Till Mobley, and Ms. Gibson Robinson did not leave their hearts and their lives filled with cynicism, despair, and hatred. The fact that they were not turned to hating white people is a testament to faith, hope and love.
In our class discussion, we reflected on the economic issue involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The black boycotters used their economic power to confront the white power structure and make changes to inhumane laws. I also reflected on the legal issue involved in the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The pro-integrationists used the power of the federal courts to confront the white power structure in Southern states and make changes to inhumane laws. As I reflect on this discussion I can hear the voices of the people behind closed doors in the White House, in Congress, in the Supreme Court, in Governor’s mansions, in white owned businesses, and in other places of power say, “We must end segregation or money and jobs will be lost,” or, “We must end segregation because it is the law.” I wonder, though, how many people said, “We must end segregation because it is the right thing to do.” As a parent and as a teacher I try to teach my children to “do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.” I hope all of our decisions regarding the dehumanization of a group of people will be made because it is the right thing to do.