Badass Ladies Of History: Melba Pattillo Beals

With recent school cuts and the continuing onslaught on education in America, one can always be reminded of how much we still need to work towards the intended goals of 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education. This landmark legislature was a declaration against the state laws that established segregated schools as unconstitutional. The class action suit that began in Topeka, Kansas, propelled school districts to do away with biased racial segregation by way of legal measure and intended for all students to receive an equal and fair education. Of course, one can still look around at our current state of affairs, especially with recent school closings in some the most vulnerable neighborhoods in cities like Oakland, Chicago, Camden and Brooklyn. Education, while legally deemed as desegregated, has yet to catch up with the actuality of what it would be like for everyone to get an equal education.

Let’s go back further to someone who was on the original front lines of the struggle on desegregating schools – journalist, author, and all-around Badass Lady of History Melba Pattillo Beals. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1942 on Pearl Harbor Day, Beals came of age in the thick of the continuing accepted segregation and hatred aimed at the black community.  In May of 1955, at the age of thirteen, Beals was chosen, as well as eight other students who would later become known as the ” Little Rock Nine,” as part of the recent decision of Brown v. Board of Education to be gradually integrated into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock.

Melba Patillo Beals. Image courtesy of

On September 3rd, 1957, Beals would walk, as almost any student would today, to attend high school in what would become one of the most telling events in Civil Rights history. She was confronted by white students and their parents with threats of death, lynching, violence, and was spat on and referred to in every derogatory sense.  But the icing on the cake?  Govenor Orval Faubus had declared the previous night that: “I have, therefore, in accordance with the solemn responsibility and the oath of my office, taken the following action: units of the National Guard have been and are now being mobilized with the mission to maintain or restore the peace and good order of this community. Advanced units are already on duty on the grounds of Central High School.” Faubus then went to further warn that the Little Rock Nine were to enter Central High School, “blood [would] run in the streets.”

From the back left, Ernest Green and Jefferson Thomas; Thelma Mothershed Wair, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford; Front Left: Terrence Roberts, Unknown Soldier, Melba Pattillo Beal, Gloria Ray Karlmark, and Carlotta Walls Lanier.Image courtesy Marquette University

“The effort to separate ourselves whether by race, creed, color, religion, or status is as costly to the separator as to those who would be separated.” Melba Beals Pattillo

As renegade police, angry mobs, and a threatening National Guard unit met Melba and the rest of the Little Rock Nine with threats of extreme violence, President Eisenhower sent combat-ready soldiers into the area to protect the lives of Melba and the rest of the Nine. Her life was forever altered by the incident and further into her school year, she found herself on the receiving end of a never-ending onslaught of death threats, hostility and eventual attack from a student who threw acid into her eyes, almost causing her to go blind.  While it was deemed “unsafe” to defend herself, Melba kept her determination going in spite of the extreme hostility by reading the literature of Gandhi, as well as seeking guidance from her grandmother, someone who she attributes much of her strength to in her books. Eventually, Central High was shut down completely due to the “unsuccessful attempt” at integrating students, an event that propelled Melba to be removed from the school permanently. Sensing the danger of the Pattillo family continuing to live in Little Rock, the NAACP helped the family move to Santa Rosa, California, and Melba was able to finish her education.

The Little Rock Nine being escorted. Image courtesy of

Melba excelled in journalism throughout the rest of high school and eventually went to college for journalism. She began writing for major newspapers and other publications on the continuing social issues surrounding the civil rights movement, as well as receiving a Masters degree in journalism from Columbia. Her most well known piece of writing is  Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High. The book chronicled her experience during the 1957 Central High School event all from a loose diary she kept at the time. She followed up Warriors Don’t Cry with White is a State of Mind, a look at her personal experience after her move from Little Rock, as well as her journey into adulthood.

Warriors dont cry. Image courtesy Mass Market paperback

The task that remains is to cope with our interdependence – to see ourselves reflected in every other human being and to respect and honor our differences.” – Warriors Don’t Cry: The Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High School.

In 1958, Daisy Bates and the NAACP awarded Beals, as well as the other members of the Little Rock Nine, the Spingarn Medal. She, along with the Little Rock Nine, were again awarded in 1999 with the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian honors awarded to those who act in behalf of peace, security and the interest of good in the United States.

Beals is still alive today,surrounded by literary awards such as the ALA’s Non-Fiction Book of the Year award,the Robert F Kennedy Book award,  and the American Booksellers award. She received her Doctoral Degree in Education from the University of San Francisco and teaches journalism at the Dominican University of California, as well as serving as the chair in the communications department. She travels around the country, giving speeches on her experience, most distinctly on the impacts on the continuing separate and unequal treatment of students in the American education system and how Brown v. Board of Education has yet to undo the intertwining damage of poverty, unequal access and segregation in schools.

To find out more about Melba Pattillo Beals and her badass self, you can access her website here at

2 replies on “Badass Ladies Of History: Melba Pattillo Beals”

What a timely post! I teach 9th grade English at a very non-diverse school in Michigan and we are adding this to our curriculum next year. I’m excited to teach it and I think the kids are really going to have an eye opening experience with it. I’ll be sure to describe the author as a badass :)

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