Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Scars of racism still sear

Little Rock memories echo here


It's hard to put into perspective the daily torment that Melba Patillo Beals endured when she was 15.

She and eight other African-American teen-agers "integrated" an all-white public high school in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.

They dodged murderous crowds of whites swinging nooses, knives and clubs and slinging stones and lighted dynamite sticks.

Inside school doors, they were tripped, spat on, cut by broken glass, forced under scalding hot showers, locked in bathroom stalls and pelted with burning toilet paper.

Hard to imagine such cruelty now, as well as the nine students' stoic, even heroic, response: They didn't strike back.

They were told by NAACP leaders that to do so would destroy the goal - which was to open up all of Little Rock's public schools to black kids.

"People would just walk up to you and hit you in the face. ... We had been instructed that any attempts to hit back or respond, to call a name, would be the end of the case," Patillo Beals wrote later in her memoir, Warriors Don't Cry.

A return to `heaven'

Patillo Beals is 61 now. An author, former TV newscaster and magazine reporter, she and the rest of the Little Rock Nine received Congressional Medals of Honor in 1998.

She's speaking Friday in Cincinnati about healing the scars of racism, part of the To Children With Love, Heart-to-Heart Racial Justice Breakfast at 7:30 a.m. at Music Hall.

The YWCA of Greater Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Bar Association and the Black Lawyers Association of Cincinnati are sponsors.

Patillo Beals calls Cincinnati "heaven."

The year before the school integration conflict, she visited relatives here. Unlike Little Rock, blacks here could sit at soda fountains downtown and be served; they could freely travel at night. Blacks and whites even lived in the same neighborhoods.

Not so in Little Rock in 1957. Jim Crow kept bus seats, hospitals, drinking fountains and public accommodations starkly segregated.

The Supreme Court three years before had made school segregation illegal, but it took the Army's 101st Airborne Division to make it happen in Little Rock.

The soldiers who accompanied the Little Rock Nine to school each day left in December, but the torment continued.

Many mornings two boys stood outside young Melba's homeroom door. "Good morning, nigger. Aren't y'all gonna talk some of that coon jab you speak?'' was their usual greeting. Hers was silence.

Students followed her class to class, walking close behind and stomping and skinning her heels.

A soldier advised her, "Never let your enemy know what you are feeling."

Only twice she responded. She bit the wrist of a boy who held a knife to her face. She kicked another boy who grabbed her from behind.

Most teachers didn't help. Some added to the abuse. A few white students tried reaching out; but they, too, were harassed and beaten.

Melba was ready to quit, but her grandmother said, "You're just going to let them win?"

She finished the year. The next year the governor cancelled high school statewide and Melba moved to California. Three of the Nine remained to graduate.

Now, 45 years later, Beals notes that schools are still mostly segregated. A different kind of violence pervades, fueled by inadequate funding, teaching and parenting.

Yet what she went through was still worth it.

The doors of educational opportunity she and others fought for are still open. The chance for equal opportunity are still reachable, albeit still buried beneath the rubble.


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