Book Review: Warriors Don’t Cry

Warriors Don’t Cry: The Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High.  Melba Pattillo Beals.  New York: Washington Square Press, 1995. 312 pp.

In May of 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Oliver Brown, et al. Vs. Board of Education of Topeka, et al., (supreme.justia.com) commonly called Brown Vs. Board of Education.  This cases examined a principle of “separate but equal” that was established in an earlier, 1896, court case, Plessy Vs. Fergueson (www.worldii.org).  In Plessy Vs. Fergueson, it was decided by the high court that with respect to railway cars, racially driven segregation could be practiced legally if equal accommodations were provided for members of both races.  In United States society, this standard was applied to almost every aspect of life, particularly in the states where human slavery was practiced prior to the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.  Bathrooms, drinking fountains, swimming pools were all segregated by race by the “separate but equal” standard.  One of the places where this standard was notably applied was with respect to schools.  Prior to the Brown Vs. Board of Education decision, in large parts of the United States, there were “white schools” and there were “black schools”.  In name they were “equal schools”, but they existed.

Warriors Don’t Cry, is very clear that “race mixing” is the societal fear that drives the southern white community to leverage the “separate but equal” standard for schools.  At this time, most marital relationships are established during the adolescent period.  People are drawing a clear line from the integrated school to marriages of mixed race.  From the perspective of the white southerner if black and white kids go to school together then they risk that one day they and the man who their father owned, beat, and tortured will have a common grandchild.  The idea of a strong black man having sex with a white woman was a constant image that invoked fear for the racist white person.  These irrational fears are not only a southern product, but are clearly pronounced in the south and lead directly to the ongoing and persistent refusal to integrate schools.  The southern racist not only sees segregated schools as something that is permissible but something that is a moral imperative.  It is good that black students should get a basic education, but it is necessary to keep the children separate.  Essentially, school segregation is seen as preventing the rape of white female children by strong black men.  Yet, the very first violent scene in this text is one where the author, a then young Melba Pattillo Beals, shares that she, a black girl, was the victim of an attempted rape by a white adult.  It is clear that that Melba and her family understand that absolutely nothing will be done about this by the authorities.  The hypocrisy here is stark.  A black girl who can not go to “a good school” because people are fearful that her brother may rape a white girl can not report her own experience of an attempted rape by a fully grown white man.  Life in Little Rock neither separate nor is it equal.

Brown Vs. Board of Education, declared that with respect to schools the standard of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional.   It specifically states that the standard of “separate but equal” violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which states:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws (US Const. amend. XIV sec. 1).

In May of 1955, the Supreme Court of the United States makes a second ruling that is typically called “Brown II” (www.oyez.com).  In this ruling public schools were required to desegregate “with all deliberate speed”.  As a result of this, in the spring of 1957,  students who were attending the all-black high school in the Little Rock School District in Arkansas were asked if they had an interest in attending the then all-white Little Rock Central High School in the 1957 – 1958 school year.  From the list of students who showed interest, the Arkansas Chapter of the NAACP chose nine students who they thought could successfully participate in the integration of Central High.  These students deserve to be named:  Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals.

When the time came for this integration to occur, the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, called upon the Arkansas National Guard to block these nine high school students from entering Central High School under the excuse that integration would ultimately lead to violence in the streets of Little Rock.  Because of a lack of communication, only one of these students: Elizabeth Eckford arrived for school on the first day and she was blocked physically, by armed soldiers, from entering the school.  Literally an army was sent to oppose a child.  The ultimate response to this by the United States Government was that President Dwight D. Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to Little Rock to force the integration of Central High.

One of these nine brave students was Melba Pattillo Beals and Warriors Don’t Cry is the story of the events that proceed from this historic event.  Warriors Don’t Cry is an incredibly powerful text because it is the words of Melba Pattillo Beals, herself.  When she attended Central during the 1957 – 1958 school year she kept a diary.  This diary is the primary source for Ms. Beals recounting of the events.  This is not just a memoir written years after the event, but rather it is a journalist reading her own diary and building it back into a personal recounting of the events.  This diary should not be overlooked.  Its existence in the text gives a sense that this is not some tale that has grown over years, but rather the faithful recounting of horrors, joys, and sacrifices that actually happened during that school year.

A reader of this text can see this as the story of four men: Vince, Danny, Link, and Ernie.

Vince is the man that represents the path that is interrupted by integration.  It is clear from the story that Vince is the man that Melba probably would have built a family with had she never attended Central High.  He is the “secret date” she meets when she goes to the raucous wrestling matches with her grandmother, Grandma India.  Yes, the matriarch of this story and the most influential wisdom person in the life of Melba is a sucker for professional wrestling.  Vince is in love with Melba.  Melba is completely over the moon for the young man.  Once the process of integration is set in motion and Melba’s life becomes consumed by the very real threat of humiliation, violence, and even death that Central High becomes Vince is reluctantly sidelined.  One of the most gut wrenching episodes presented in this text is when Melba turns sixteen.  A full-fledged party is assembled and all of Melba’s friends in the Little Rock black community are invited.  This is an important moment for a 1950’s southern black teen.  One single guest arrives.  Vince is the sole attendee.  It gradually becomes clear first that a former friend of Melba’s from “her old school” is having a party on the same night.  Then, it becomes even more clear that the parents of her former friends have forbidden them from attending because they are afraid that the segregationists will attack their children if they are gathered for a celebration at Melba’s home.  Melba has been completely isolated from her own community and she is not welcomed, but rather, despised by the white community.  Her lone guest is Vince.  He is a polite young man.  It is clear that he wants to be with the “rest of the gang”, yet, he is a good man and stays.  Melba, because of her involvement in the integration and the risk of threat her mere presence brings, has not been invited to the other party.  Melba, in an act that symbolizes much about her situation of isolation, ultimately relents and dismisses Vince.  He leaves and with him is her last connection to the other black youth of Little Rock.

If there is a white knight in this story it is Danny.  Danny is the soldier from the 101st Airborne that is assigned to be Melba’s personal guard each day inside the walls of Central High.  Danny is an untarnished hero in this story.  This is a white man who is from far off who is here to do his duty.  He is unwavering in his protection Melba.  He is clear that this is a temporary reality from the beginning.  He refuses to become emotionally engaged.  At no point do we learn Danny’s actual opinion about school integration.  This is irrelevant to Danny’s situation.  It is, however, clear that Danny is a systemic forward thinker.  He is not content with his role as body-guard.  He wants Melba to be able to stand up for herself.  The last day Danny is on campus is a central moment in this story.  Danny leaves encouraging Melba, but without saying goodbye.  Melba knows it’s Danny’s last day and she doesn’t dare say a thing.  Danny’s departure leaves a personal void for Melba.  Her protector is gone.  The man that symbolizes the honest segment of the white community departs.  Danny’s presence is literally longed for by Melba for the remainder of the school year.  In the midst of the horror of Central High the non-realized fantasy of Danny’s return is a common source of comfort for Melba.

The third man in this story of the Little Rock Nine is Link.  It has to be noticed that between the departure of Danny and Link’s arrival within Melba’s life, there is a massively bleak story being told in these pages.  Each day the Little Rock Nine go to school and each day they are mocked, beaten, humiliated, and intimidated with organized relentlessness.  Violence is normal inside the halls of Central High School.  Ultimately, one among their ranks is beaten into a position where she is accused of responding.  Minnijean Brown dared to call a group of girls who threw a purse full of combination locks at her “white trash”.  For this she was expelled from Central High School and not permitted to return.  On the upside, Minnijean was whisked away to an independent private high school in New York by the NAACP to ensure that she received a good education despite her misstep at Central High.  This though only made it clear to the violent segregationists that it was possible to see the students integrating their school put out.  The battle cry of the opposition during this time became “one down, eight to go” and the departure of Minnijean Brown only served to accelerate the attack on the eight remaining students in both frequency and intensity.

There was a bit of a breakthrough during this period for Melba as well.   Melba’s grandmother, Grandma India, encouraged Melba to take Gandhi as an example for dealing with her attackers at Central High.  Melba began being more gracious when dealing with her attackers and ultimately found some respite in this.  Whether they thought that Melba was actually insane or couldn’t think of a way to continue their evil machinations in the face of her gracious peaceful response remains unclear, but what is clear is that the more Melba centered on non-violence the more she found moments of peace within the chaos that was the integration of Central High School

Link was popular white boy at Central High School.  His entrance into Melba’s life is at a moment when she had inadvertently stepped into a small mob of students who could litteraly have chosen to take her life.  Link, in what can only be considered an amazing self-sacrificing move, actually lends Melba his car so she can out pace her attackers and make a get away.  This is a bold move on many levels.  Link risked the loss of his car or at a bear minimum damage to it.  He risked being found out as having sympathies toward the integration.  Finally, we learn later, that he is risking being disowned by his own bigoted family.  This young man is risking everything for Melba and her safety.  Once the car is safely returned by an almost covert operation where it is left in the parking lot of a local eatery that is frequented by both black and white residents of Little Rock, Link begins the process of gaining Melba’s trust and becoming a spy for her within the ranks of the segregationists.  Only far later in the text, when Melba is describing her life post-Central High and her failed marriage, do we learn, almost as an aside, that Link had fallen for Melba.  He wanted to be her partner.  Link’s romantic interest aside, we also learn that Link was effectively raised by a black woman, his nanny.  We learn that Link’s nanny was ill and because of this illness Link’s parents had fired her.  She had no visible means of support and Link himself was using his pocket money to help provide her with groceries.  Link introduces Melba to his former nanny, Nana Healy, when he needs her to convince Nana to see a doctor because of her deteriorating health.  In the end Melba and her Grandma India become part of Nana Healy’s care-giving circle.  We get to see what happens when Nana succumbs to her illness and dies.  We watch Link crumble and Melba be the one who is his comfort because she is the keeper of his secret.  He is not permitted to grieve for the black woman who raised him except with the black friend he is not supposed have.  Link protects Melba and Melba gives him a confidant.  This relationship appears to be intact through the end of Melba’s time at Central High, but you get the clear picture that the friendship disintegrates when, after having rejected Link’s offer to be her partner, later in life Melba attempts a marriage with a different white man.  There appears to be a sense of betrayal here that the older-adult Melba, the author, seems to regret.

The last man in this story is Ernest Green.  He is called Ernie throughout the text.  The final part of this story surround one single event.  The graduation ceremony in with Ernest Green will walk across a stage and become the first black graduate of Little Rock Central High School.  In the end the entire effort to rid Central High of the eight remaining black students is directed to attempting to derail this young man’s graduation.  It is feared that the graduation itself will be marred by either a bombing or gun violence.  The first year of integration at Cental High began with a young black woman walking alone and being stopped at the front door of Central High by armed soldiers and ended with a young black man walking alone across a stage under the threat of murder and staring down his enemies while receiving the same diploma as a white child.  Equality is achieved, finally, because the separation is removed.  No one can doubt that Ernest Green is equally educated as all the other graduates of Central High because Ernest Green is a graduate of Central High.  This act of fearlessly walking across a stage says definitively that the Little Rock Central High has been integrated.  One drop of ink on a white page can not go unnoticed.

It may seem odd to include this review in a blog that assumes an audience of parent sor a caregivers to children.  Yet, it’s books like these that we need to consider reading with our children.  In short, this is the kind of text that can change a adolescent and make them a person of conscience for the rest of their life.  Be forewarned that this is not a light read.  The graphic violence within can be both gut wrenching and heartbreaking.  A teen needs to reach a fairly high level of maturity to enter into this text.  The center part of the book is probably a bit slow and repetitive.  It can feel like the reader is being beat over their head by episode, after episode, after episode of hate-filled violent acts.  Yes, it is important for the reader to experience the harsh and constant reality that these nine young men and women faced, but this section has all the subtlety of a bowling ball passing through a plate glass window.  With that note, this is an important book about a landmark event in the history of the United States.  If you have a mature reader in your house it is worth the time and effort to read it with them.  By reading books like this children can participate in the bending of the long arc of the moral universe toward justice.

 

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