In 1957, Melba Pattillo Beals made history and headlines when she was selected to be one of nine Arkansas students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock in the wake of 1954’s Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education. Beals chronicled that harrowing, life-shaping experience in Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High (Simon Schuster, 1994), which became a million-copy bestseller. Now, in March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine, a book for young readers, Beals documents her experiences growing up black in the 1940s Jim Crow South. A former TV journalist, journalism professor, and communications consultant, who received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, Beals spoke with PW about revisiting her past, lessons she has passed on to her own children, and what she hopes readers will glean from her new book.
Was it a challenge to reach back in time to recreate this memoir?
Yes, since in order to write the story I had to relive it. At the same time, I have been blessed with a very good memory, and as I look back, it is easy for me to remember pieces of conversations—conversations are always running in my head. I believe that as adults, each one of us is a compilation of our memories and of all that we’ve gone through. As I wrote this book, I realized that psychologically I had stuffed quite a bit into the corners of my head for many years. Writing this book allowed me to bring the past into the forefront. I’d often fall asleep at night and dream of what I was writing about.
You write about witnessing, at the age of five, Ku Klux Klansmen hanging a man you knew from the rafters of your great-grandmother’s church, his punishment for being “uppity.” And you tell of witnessing as a teen disturbing goings-on after being unwittingly driven to a remote KKK gathering. Was it emotionally wrenching for you to resurrect such horrifying memories of hatred and prejudice?
Those moments were never not in my head. The sight of Mr. Harvey dangling from the church rafters, and the sound of the growling in his throat, has stayed in my mind for years and years. And it was a different challenge describing the scene at the KKK gathering. Looking back, it is clear that the Klansmen were raping women at that meeting in the woods. I could have made that assumption in my book, but when it occurred, I was too young to make assumptions. And I did not want to expose young readers to that information.
With that observation, are you speaking as a mother as well as an author?
I suppose I am. My daughter is now in her early 50s, and I adopted twin boys, who are now 26, when I was 50. So even in my 70s, I’m blessed to have this clear vision of what I do and what I don’t want my babies to have in their heads, which is always on my mind as I write for young people.
Do you find writing for young people very different from writing for adults?
I actually wrote Warrior for readers between the ages of 12 and 16, and then the book became a hit with adults, who have consistently purchased it over the years. I hope that happens with March Forward, Girl as well. I really don’t think too much about who the audience is when I’m writing a story. I think about the content and the message—and about shaking things up a bit! I hope that my new book is satisfying and informative for all audiences. It is important to me that my books reach all readers, young and adult.
To what extent did you share your childhood experiences with your own children when they were young?
My children’s experiences and expectations of life are so different than mine were as a child—they never lived in Little Rock in the 1940s—and I didn’t share parts of my past with them when they were very young. In fact, one day my sons came home from school with a copy of Warriors Don’t Cry, and they said, “The lady in this book looks just like you, but she’s prettier. Maybe if you wore makeup every day you’d be as pretty as she is!” For the longest time, they didn’t know that I was one of the Little Rock Nine, but it was important to me to instill in them, as children, the strength that I had as a young person. I have always told them to hold on to their dreams and their dignity and to be true to themselves. And I hope, through that message, I have given them a feeling of strength.
Is it safe to assume that you want readers of March Forward, Girl to take away a similar message from your life story?
Yes. I don’t care if they are from the moon and are green from head to toe—I want all kids to know that they are valuable, and their dreams are precious. You just need to decide who you are and who you want to become, and you can achieve it—so go for it! Do not let others define the person you are and what you’re capable of. And stand up for yourself and be willing to stand up for others. If you do that, you will always remain true to yourself.
March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine by Melba Pattillo Beals. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 Jan. ISBN 978-1-328-88212-7