This emotive memoir opens with the grown Little Rock Nine visiting with Senator Bill Clinton and his wife. Clinton tells the nine how Little Rock has changed since the days of their persecution and how now they are thought of as heroes and heroines. Throughout the remainder of the book Melba tells the heart wrenching story behind their great efforts of integrating Little Rock’s high schools and towards equality among all men and women. Along their journey the nine brave teenagers were influenced by many leaders.
At the start of Melba’s story, the leaders in her life that affect her most are her parents and grandmother. When she was little, she was to obey the rules that they put down for her and there was to be no exceptions. Once, when she was still very young, and did not yet understand the racial turmoil around her, she used the white women’s bathroom while out shopping with her mother and grandmother. “They kept shouting, ‘Good Lord, do something.’ I was doing something by that time, seated comfortably on the toilet, listening to the hysteria building outside my locked stall (Beals 18).” Little Melba was shocked at how upset everyone got over her just simply going to the bathroom. It was then that she began to understand that in the eyes of the whites, she was not worthy. As she grew older, she became accustomed to the way things were; blacks used the designated black toilets, water fountains, and benches. Then on May 17, 1954, when Melba was just twelve years old, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that separate public schools for whites and blacks was no longer legal. On that very day, Melba was almost raped in a field near her house by a white man. Marissa, usually a bully that took peoples lunch money saved Melba from the attack. One day her seventh grade teacher asked if anyone that lived in the Central High School district wanted to attend school with the white people, and Melba signed her name. At this point in her life, the people who influenced her the most begin to shift. In February of 1956, the NAACP filed suit in Federal District Court to make schools integrate immediately. Governor Faubus announced his position against integration. He negatively impacted not only the Little Rock Nine, but the whole black community. Faubus declared that he would send the Arkansas National Guard to the high school, though he did not say whether they were there to protect the nine or to stop them from entering the school. Other Government Officials held much power over the brave nine as well. President Eisenhower, although passive in his actions, he did somewhat aid the black community in the efforts of making integration successful.
Melba worried if she should tell her parents she signed up to attend Central, but she decided that since white mothers were fighting so strongly against the integration that it had little chance of actually happening. Aside from the mothers in the black community having such a huge impact on what was acceptable and what wasn’t, white mothers had that power and more because they were, indeed, white. Melba knew the strength her own mother and grandmother held, and to that she couldn’t imagine the power of persuasion white mothers had. While visiting a great uncle in Cincinnati, she tells Mother Lois and Grandma India that she will be of the first blacks to attend Central High School. As the school year of integration approached, the media became a key influence in the Little Rock Nine’s lives. It was through television, radio, and newspaper that they could hear the rulings of the lawsuits filed to stop integration, and the NAACP’s fight to preserve the decision. “But just before school started we noticed in the newspaper half-page invitations to big ‘states’ rights’ rallies where important white people urged everybody to fight integration (Beals 36).” Soon the Nine’s days were filled with meetings. They met with the white superintendent of schools, the school board, with Central High School officials, as well as with NAACP officials. Mrs. Daisy Bates, the president of the NAACP in Arkansas spoke on their (the Nine’s) behalf, and she and her husband owned the Arkansas State Press, a newspaper that was the sole voice for the black community.
The leaders that most influenced the students positively in the months and days leading up to the first day of school were most obviously, the NAACP leaders that worked closely with the brave nine, their families that gave them courage and strength, and some of their own community. Even throughout the black community, people were against integration. Some of Melba’s neighbors and people in her church community tried to tell her that she was just starting trouble. There were, however, an overwhelming amount of negative influences faced before the first day of school. Media and technology brought a lot of this negativity into the homes of the Little Rock Nine. The ever present threatening phone calls and news broadcasts about how integration might be called off brought a cloud of pessimism upon the students and their families.
On September 3, 1957, Melba and her mother drove to Central High School for Melba’s first day of class. They are faced by a huge white mob that has gathered outside the school. There was a designated place where the Nine were supposed to meet before entering the school, but Melba couldn’t reach it due to the massive angry crowds. They turned around and fled the horde of angry whites. President Eisenhower then announced he would use force to prevent that kind of mob rule and to enforce federal law. The next day, the 101st Airborne Division arrived in
Little Rock to protect the black students.
Throughout Melba’s year at Central High, she was personally affected by many people. Each black student had their very own soldier assigned to them to protect them. Danny was Melba’s bodyguard, who protected her even when someone tried to throw acid in her eyes. But then, Eisenhower removed the 101st and the students had to rely on the small efforts if any of the Arkansas National Guard. One day, when Melba was about to be attacked by a group of white students, Link another white student not in the group attacking her, helped her escape by giving her the keys to his car. Melba and Link became friends and he helped to influence her and keep her going by warning her of plans the segregationists had for her and the other nine. When Minnijean got expelled from Central for fighting boys from throwing soup on her, the NAACP leaders helped to get her a scholarship to a high school in New York. By the end of the school year, the Little Rock Nine were on tour in the north where they were treated like heroes. During their tour, integration in Little Rock was dwindling. Harry Lemley, the judge that replaced Davies, granted the school board’s plea to delay integration for three years. The NAACP and its leaders got many appeals, and the black students got ready for their second year at Central.
Governor Faubus shut down all the high schools instead of letting integration continue. Grandma India died in October of 1958 and the NAACP decided that the stresses of integration were too much on not only the students but their families as well. The students are taken in by supporters across the country and Central opened up again to integration in 1960.
In summary, there were many influences the Little Rock Nine faced. Leaders from many different organizations affected them both positively and negatively. School administrators largely affected them negatively by their resistance to their presence in the white school. Government leaders such as Faubus also influenced them in a negative way, through his apparent disapproval of integration and obvious actions to stop it. White parent groups and students also affected the nine black students in a harmful way. Parents rallied to stop integration and tried to get laws passed to ban it, while the white students of Central didn’t hold back their feelings on it, by attacking and hazing the black students. The media played a large role in bringing the negativity of the earlier mentioned groups into the homes of the nine. Among the positive influencers were the leaders of the NAACP such as Mrs. Bates and the lawyers and judges that fought for integration like Thurgood Marshall and Ronald Davies. The families and church communities of the nine brought them strength when they needed it most through encouraging words and love. Military officials offered their support through their protection from angry segregationists.
Overall, the experience that was largely shaped by the influences and events of the integration both good and bad gave those nine students the gifts of courage and patience. The strength displayed by those young teenagers was a direct result of the persecution they faced. And as Melba says it best, “If my Central High School experience taught me one lesson, it is that we are not separate. The task that remains is – to see ourselves reflected in every other human being and to respect and honor our differences (Beals 312).”