Melba Beals was one of nine African-American high school students in 1957 to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. They were met with hostility and an overwhelming unwillingness to accept the young students.
"I wanted to go to Central High School through a long process of an understanding and a realization that I was getting cheated," Beals said. "The desire to go to Central High School, in my mind, was never to go and sit by white people. My desire was to be in that building, to utilize that equipment, to have the advantages that Central High School provided. People who left Central High School were scholars, they went to the top eight universities in country. They had hope, they had wonderment, I had none of that as a Black child in the south."
Beals persevered, realizing even at 14 years old, her education was too important to give up. Her book, Warriors Don't Cry, chronicles the events during this time. She recently visited Sonoma State where she shared stories of her past to a packed house of students and others who have only read in history books about violent efforts toward integration in the south and elsewhere.
Central High had 1,900 white students. Beals and the other eight teenagers chosen to integrate this school were immensely outnumbered. She described her year at Central as being "Hell." She shared stories of being tripped, having rocks thrown at her, sitting on glass, being trapped in the bathroom stall while flaming paper-towels rained down on her, an numerous other acts of violence and cruelty towards her. Despite this, as her book title mentions, she did not cry. She held her head high and continued to pursue her education.
In 1958, the NAACP awarded the Spingarn Medal to Beals and to the other high schoolers of the Little Rock Nine, an award given for outstanding achievement by African Americans. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Mary Talbert, president of the National Association of Colored Women also received the Spingarn Medal, among only 300 honorees since 1915.
Her visit to SSU had the almost 475 students, faculty and staff listening intently to stories from a not-so-distant past; their collective expressions showing deep appreciation for the words spoken by an amazing woman who was once an extremely courageous high school student.
A majority of the audience were SSU freshmen, who as a part of the Freshman Interest Group and Making Our Space an Inclusive Community programs had read A Mighty Long Way, by Little Rock Nine member Carlotta Walls LaNier.
Beals opened her talk with a laugh, commenting on her recent hip surgery and her planned knee surgery stating, "As soon as that happens, I will come back and challenge you to run." She thanked the audience for taking the time to listen to her and said, "The greatest gift that you give anyone is your willingness to listen to them."
"I wanted to be more, like I hope each of you wants to be more," Beals said to the audience. "Each of you has an inalienable right to present your personal best, to be the absolute best that you can." This message carried throughout her speech, throughout trials of torment that she says shaped her into the person she is today. Despite the disheartening subject matter of her talk, Beals was positive, animated, pleasant and got many laughs and smiles from her audience and when her presentation ended she received a standing ovation.
"I was struck by Melba's presence. She had been thrust into a situation as a teen in which she couldn't be who she truly was," said Lorna Catford, psychology professor. "Sitting on stage, she was gutsy, comfortable with herself, and real. In addition to her strong message about appreciating the richness of our human diversity, she was giving another message to the predominantly freshman audience -- modeling a comfort with yourself, regardless of what others have said, or earlier self-doubts."
Educational Opportunity Program advisor Andre Bailey said that he was strongly moved by what Beals shared. "It meant so much to hear an affirmation and life account of her experiences and faith in God," Bailey said. "She spoke of principles that my grandparents and my parents have shared with me over the years."
In 1999, she and the rest of the Nine were awarded the highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.
- Sarah Dowling