Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir of her role in the integration of a Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, provides a first-person account of the physical and emotional abuse to which she and eight other blacks were subjected, and the incredible courage she displayed in surviving that first year without sacrificing her dignity. Warriors Don’t Cry is replete with real-life characters whose role, for better or worse, shaped the society in which we live today. Those characters range from Beals to the president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, who would reverse the racist governor of Arkansas’s order to the National Guard to prevent those nine students from entering the school in 1957 and ordering those same citizen-soldiers to instead escort the children into the school and protect them from physical abuse.
The story of the “Little Rock Nine” was one of the seminal moments in the civil rights movement. In addition to Melba and President Eisenhower, other major characters include Melba’s grandmother, India, who is instrumental in shaping Melba’s character and providing her the courage to perservere – and whose admonition to her granddaughter that “warriors don’t cry” sustains Melba – Lois, Melba's mother, herself a teacher; her father, Will, who had separated from Lois and opposes the integration of the schools; Minnijean Brown, another of “Little Rock Nine” whose decision to fight the whites who taunt her gets her expelled; Virgil Blossom, superintendent of the Little Rock school system, who tacitly supports integration; Orval Faubus, governor of Arkansas and a fervent opponent of integration; Elizabeth Huckaby, the vice principal of the school who attempts to protect the nine black students, to no avail; Elizabeth Ekford, another of the nine who is subjected to particularly vicious verbal, and almost physical, attacks from white students; and Danny, the white National Guard soldier who protects Melba. There are more characters in Warriors Don’t Cry, but these are some of the most important.
Chapter 22 begins with the Little Rock Nine now reduced to eight following the expulsion of Minnijean Brown. Beals notes the emotional toll the preceding events were taking on the remaining black students:
“Those first school days of the New Year were frightening without Minnijean because it made us realize any one or all of us could be next. Posters and cards reading ‘One nigger down and eight to go’ were everywhere.”
Governor Faubus was showing no inclination of backing down, and the eight students are subjected to an increasing series of humiliations and attacks (“. . .it was evident that segregationists must have spent their holidays thinking up ways to make us miserable.”) Those efforts among the segregationists including devising ways of provoking the remaining eight students to respond violently in the same way Minnijean had, with the inevitable same results. Physical assaults increased dramatically. Minnijean was eventually allowed to return to school, but was the victim of horrible attacks intended to provoke the kind of reaction that would once again get her expelled. The black students were pushed down staircases, and subjected to an unending series of attacks. For better or worse, the situation at Central High School remained in national news and in the national consciousness. Through it all, Grandma India continued to encourage Melba to stick it out, and to retain her dignity and faith in God.