Facing racist threats, Melba Pattillo Beals helped integrate Arkansas schools. She also deepened her faith
Posted in , Jun 28, 2018
It’s difficult to move to another state, another town, another school, especially for a teenager. As a 17-year-old, I was compelled to move—not just to another part of the country but to another family.
My life had changed two years earlier, when I became one of the Little Rock Nine, the teenagers who integrated all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. When my teacher asked who would be interested in going to Central High, the pride of Little Rock, my hand shot up.
For as long as I could remember, I’d wanted to break free of the rules that defined—and confined—black people’s lives in the segregated South. It upset me to see my mother, a teacher working on her doctorate degree, kowtow to whites. It hurt to have to drink from “colored” water fountains and sit in the back of the bus.
The warnings from my parents and grandmother made it clear that white people were in charge and not to be disobeyed or confronted. At age five, I’d seen a man hanging from the rafters of our church, and fear of white people and their rules had consumed me ever since. I knew I could not live that way. At first, I was driven by the notion that attending Central would be my ticket to college and out of Little Rock. Just to get the nine of us inside the school’s front doors, President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to escort us through an angry mob. Every day, white students hit, kicked and spit on me. When I went to the bathroom, they tossed burning strips of paper over the stall. I walked the halls in constant fear.
When I complained to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., about the treatment we received each day, he said, “Don’t be selfish, Melba. You are doing this for generations yet unborn.” He changed the direction of my commitment. “You can always call on the Lord,” Grandma told me. “He’s as close as your skin.” I’d never prayed harder than that year at Central. I focused on my studies and got good grades—the best revenge, Mother said. The next year, to avoid integration, the governor closed all the public high schools, opening a private school for whites only. Because of legal appeals, I couldn’t register at any school anywhere.
I stayed home, teaching myself with Grandma’s help. We used the many books at home and correspondence courses. In September 1958, Grandma was diagnosed with cancer. She passed on in October. I felt lost without her.
Central High was scheduled to reopen in the summer of 1959. But Mother found out that the KKK was offering a $10,000 bounty to kill any member of the “Nine.” “You can’t stay here,” she said. “The NAACP has a family in California you can live with for your senior year.”
I’d read about California in magazines like Ebony and Seventeen and had seen it on television. Movie stars. Mansions. The ocean. I fantasized on the long flight there that my foster family would have more money than my family and live in a lovely house.
At the San Francisco airport, I was startled to be met by white people who looked like folks back home who wanted to kill me. They said they were NAACP members and would drive me to the family hosting me.
The van crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. We drove far into the countryside. I fretted about whether I had been kidnapped by members of the KKK. Finally, the car turned into a gravel driveway and pulled up to a two-story farmhouse. The front door opened and out stepped a shaggy little dog, barking madly, and a petite, brown-haired… white woman. I gasped.
“I’m Kay McCabe,” she shouted over the barking. “This is Rags. He’s just excited. Welcome!”
“Mrs. McCabe?” I whispered. She extended a hand. I kept mine to my sides. Did she really want me touching her?
“Call me Kay,” she said, which only added to my discomfort. Back home no child dared call an adult by her name.
She greeted the other NAACP members and showed me a bedroom with three single beds where I could leave my things. After the others left, Kay sat me down at the kitchen table. “Come help me with dinner,” she said, handing me a knife and carrots to slice for the beef stew simmering on the stove. Next, she had me set the table. Was she thinking I was going to be her maid?
Minutes later came a deep voice. “I’m home.” Mr. McCabe was tall, dressed in brown tweed trousers, white shirt and plaid bow tie.
“George is a psychology professor at San Francisco State,” Kay said.
“So you’re the new kid?” he said. “How’s it going?”
Mother and Grandma never talked to me so casually. I barely had time to react before the McCabes’ teenage daughters, Judy and Joanie, burst through the door, and three-year-old Ricky woke from his nap. Everyone sat for dinner. No one said grace. That made me nervous. I said a silent prayer. “What day would you like on the chore chart?” Kay asked. “We all pitch in.” I didn’t understand. They weren’t expecting me to be the maid? I was already part of the family? I even shared a bedroom with Judy and Joanie.
That night I wrote in my diary: “Dear God, is this the family you want me to have? The McCabes are very sweet, but can’t you find me one that looks like me?”
The next day, I was astonished to once again be in an all-white school. I saw no other black students but was told there were four others. These white students were very different from those at Central. They smiled, helped me with my locker and offered to show me to my classes. The teachers were just as welcoming. Even so, I kept looking over my shoulder.
I was surprised to discover my classmates dated each other. I hadn’t been allowed to date in Little Rock. They all made plans to go places together. While friendly, students rarely invited me and I didn’t have the confidence to initiate a friendship. Every day I was reminded of how I didn’t fit in. The clothes I wore. The way I talked. I learned that it wasn’t only race that separated people. Only well-off people could afford to live in Santa Rosa.
One day, George took me to the city swimming pool. “She’s not allowed here,” the attendant said. I suddenly felt as though I were back in Little Rock.
“I’ll have your job!” George said.
“You’re violating my daughter’s civil rights.” I wasn’t sure what was more shocking, having this white man call me his daughter or his coming to my defense. George gathered friends from his college, and they marched on the pool continuously for a week. There was never a problem after that.
The McCabes were Quakers. They believed in hands-on helping people. Kay had helped found the Santa Rosa Quaker meeting and the local NAACP chapter. She had marched for voters’ rights and helped establish a preschool for minorities. Judy and Joanie treated me like a sister from Day One. We hung out together, caring for the pigs and cows on the farm. Still I missed Mother and my brother and the AME church I was raised in. The quiet, more contemplative Quaker worship wasn’t for me. I needed to feel the spirit and hear the choir. George drove me to a Methodist church on Sundays. But God didn’t feel close by, as he had in Little Rock.
In late fall, I caught the flu and spent many days in bed. George thought he knew what was ailing me. “You’re homesick,” he said. “It can be unsettling to be separated from everything that’s familiar. Why don’t you go back to Little Rock over Christmas? If you decide to come back, we’ll always have a place for you.” If I came back? It hadn’t occurred to me that I might not return.
In the Little Rock terminal, a white man bumped hard against my shoulder. “Watch where you’re going, you piece of trash,” he snarled. My stomach clenched, but I said nothing.
“Melba Joy!” Mother ran to me, my brother right behind her. On the drive home, she said, “I was thinking that if you told the newspapers you weren’t interested in integrating, maybe the KKK would leave us alone. Then you could come home for good.”
That night I couldn’t sleep. I imagined Grandma beside me, settling me like she used to when I was a girl. “You’re going to be just fine, Melba,” I heard her say. “Stop resisting this new path the Lord has chosen for you.”
But after only a few days back in Little Rock, I found the fear of white people and what they might do to me once again consuming me. At our family Christmas, my relatives talked about whites threatening them. How could you be your personal best if you were frightened all the time?
Finally, I understood. My true home wasn’t a particular place or even with particular people. It was with God. He gave me the vision to see beyond what segregated society dictated. He had given me the courage to raise my hand to enter Central. He would keep giving me the strength and support I needed to follow my own path.
After Christmas, I went back to Santa Rosa. The McCabes greeted me warmly. “What day do you want on the chore chart?” Kay asked my first night back.
A few weeks later, George asked if I’d be interested in leaving high school early and enrolling at San Francisco State College. “I know some people,” he said with a smile. “It’ll be a more diverse experience. I think you’d benefit.”
He went to the campus with me on my first day. “Melba, you can make your life into whatever you want it to be,” he said. “Kay and I are here if you need us. Remember, you’re never anything less than our daughter, never less than an important human being, a person who had strength to set this country on its ear and teach it a lesson in civil rights.”
Tears streamed down my face as I watched him walk away. Then I turned and followed the path the Lord set out for me, an incredible journey that has led me to be a wife, a mother, a TV news reporter, a writer, a university professor and a speaker, telling my story to audiences across the country about how I turn my fear into faith. Fifty-eight years later, I am still a member of the McCabe family, experiencing all the love and comfort they offered me from the very beginning.