Melba Pattillo Beals: The Faith and Courage of a Civil Rights Icon

Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American students who in 1957 enrolled at the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School, discusses her memoir of that time, I Will Not Fear.

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Hi there, Guideposts. I’m Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine. Now, I was one of those nine teenagers who integrated Central High School in 1957. Remember we lived in the south and under the Jim Crow laws, which separated everything. And one of the things we wanted was equality in education, equality in all the equipment. 

You know, we wanted new typewriters and good stuff, good books. And so that is why I went to Central High School against all odds. My new book is called, “I Will Not Fear.” I wrote simultaneously two books. One about being, say, age 1 through 14. And by the time I was three years of age, already I was very upset about my parents going into white grocery stores and becoming one of the little Tommy Toms and robots. 

By the time I was five, I had already seen a man hanged in my church. So my book, “I Will Not Fear”, is about my faith. How to build faith under fire when things are going wrong because I experienced that at a very young age. And when I was writing that book the editors went, you know, well, why is your faith different? Why is it so strong? Because as a child in Little Rock, Arkansas it’s the only thing I had was my faith. 

And so that in the face of fear when, you know, something is really frightening me, as it did when I went to Central High School, if you need the 101st Airborne Division, there’s something to be frightened of. And I was frightened of the mobs, of adults that were coming. I couldn’t understand their behavior. I couldn’t depend on the police, couldn’t depend on the firemen. Had no one to depend on. And could not depend on my parents. That was the most heartbreaking thing. Because they were as oppressed as I was and they, in fact, then, were the role model in front of my eyes for me to see. 

So as a person of color in Little Rock, Arkansas, you had no power. The only thing I had was God. My favorite prayer, of course, is the Lord’s Prayer. And the other thing I do is the 23rd Psalms. The Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want, period, is a big part of my life because that means I can’t want for anything, no matter what it is I think I need or want, God’s got that covered. When people read “I Will Not Fear”, I’m so happy because I’m getting so much response from the readers who say that they have gained a feeling of security and a feeling of having got close as a friend, not something very distant in the heavens. 

It’s necessary if you’re going to do well, I think, to feel that feeling of security is always with you no matter what. And so that’s what I’m getting back is great feedback from readers saying, I now have a god walking by my side, like you. You know, someone as close as the skin on my cheek.

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