We are in the final week of my Social Studies Methods Class this week, and the timing is auspicious.
Today, Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine-African American teenagers who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957-is in Chicago for the first of a three-day stay in the city. Roberts, who like the other students endured unimaginable abuse from the resistant white students, will be speaking to students, teachers, administrators and community during a packed visit sponsored by Facing History and Ourselves.
Roberts’ book about his experiences will be published this fall, and it should be a fascinating one. The genial, lean psychologist and desegregation consultation has intelligence, wisdom and wit. I look forward to reading his memoir.
For those who want to read more these brave teenagers sooner, I recommend Melba Patillo Beals’ Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High. A memoir by another of the Little Rock Nine, the book interweaves diary entries from the time with newspaper headlines and Beals’ own memories to create an accessible and emotionally compelling work.
Beals opens the book with her childhood memories of segregation. She writes, “Black folks aren’t born expecting segregation, prepared from day one to follow its confining rules. Nobody presents you with a handbook when you’re teething and says, ‘Here’s how you must behave as a second-class citizen.’ Instead, the humiliating expectations and traditions creep over you, stealing a teaspoon of your self-esteem each day.”
Beals recounts an early awareness of segregation’s power over the adults in her life, thereby setting up the possibility that she could do something to lessen its hold.
The seeds of that opportunity came on May 17, 1954, when the Earl Warren-led Supreme Court unanimously issued the Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared the 58-year-old doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ unconstitutional.
Many school districts delayed the mandated integration, including the one in Little Rock. After the second Brown v. Board decision said districts should comply “with all deliberate speed,” the Little Rock district decided to comply.
The result was a year like no other Beals, Roberts, Elizabeth Eckford or anyone else in the community had ever experienced. Beals recounts the endless death threats, the job loss for her mother and other parents of the nine students, the constant hurling of epithets, the summoning and then departure of the National Guard.
A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, Beals writes in clear and direct prose. And, at times, some of the most moving sections come when she shares excerpts from her diary at that time.
Beals also writes about famous incidents like when Minnijean Brown dumped a bowl of chili on one of her tormentors’ head and the cafeteria went silent except for the sound of the black workers clapping and her connection with Link, a white student.
Beals has gripping material to work with and makes a lot of it. Warriors Don’t Cry is a memorable, well-written and accessible account of heroism by nine teenagers, their families and the few people who supported them.