Beals, a journalist, says that only in 1994, nearly forty years later, can she write her story without bitterness. Reared in a middle-class, church-going family that valued education, Melba Pattillo loved Elvis, Johnny Mathis, clothes, and the Hit Parade. She volunteered to test the Supreme Court integration ruling, not out of political conviction, but on a rebellious teenager’s whim. Along with her eight companions, she lost her adolescent innocence when she was threatened with lynching, spit upon, and physically abused by white students, their parents, and the mob that gathered daily outside the high school. The harassment continued with telephone threats and gunshots at her home.
Ultimately President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to compel Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to obey federal law. The violent hatred unleashed by the citizens of Little Rock against the “niggers” has been recorded by news cameras. Less well known is the campaign of terror directed against the black community of Little Rock that led to the loss of jobs, businesses, and homes.
Beals reports the graphic details that make her story come alive. She notes that some white people did offer support, while some in the black community discouraged resistance to the status quo. Beyond the violence, the teenagers were devastated by their isolation from their peers and deprived of a normal school experience.
Like Maya Angelou, young Melba suffered a childhood sexual assault and was supported by her faith in God and a strong grandmother. Beal’s story, while less artful than Angelou’s distilled narration, nevertheless is a forceful and healing record of history that shows how far Americans have come in forty years—and how much more remains to be done.