Melba Beals Transcends Little Rock

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In the fall of 1957, on Melba Patillo's first day at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., an angry, insult-hurling mob gathered at the front doors. By New Year's Eve, topping her list of resolutions was, "To do my best to stay alive until May 29," followed by, "To pray daily for the strength not to fight back."

Ms. Patillo Beals, one of the nine black students who integrated Central High, captures her experiences in "Warriors Don't Cry" (Pocket Books, 1994). A movie based on the book is expected out next year.

Along with many trials, she briefly describes a significant part of her healing process.

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In 1958, Gov. Orval Faubus closed all Little Rock's high schools. A year later, NAACP officials asked for volunteers across the US to care for the students while they finished their educations.

Beals headed to California to live with a white Quaker family. Her "parents," George and Carol McCabe, became important figures in her life.

"They taught me about equality by the way they treated me," she says. It was then that she learned "white people were just people who happened to be white, not anything else." This is the basis of her sequel, "White is a State of Mind, Freedom is Yours to Claim," due out in a year - in time for the 40th anniversary of Central High's integration.

Beals's mother, an English teacher, encouraged her to keep a diary during her stay at Central High. Although Beals started writing her story at 18, she found it too difficult to finish until years later.

Beals has received letters from readers saying her ability to overcome had inspired them to persevere in their own situations. The responses showed Beals that readers understood her book is not about hatred or segregation, but the triumph of the human spirit, she says.

Beals has worked as a NBC newscaster and currently is a communications consultant in San Francisco, Calif. She has also written a coming mystery novel, "Firecrackers."

While she remains interested in America's educational system, Beals says, "I think we've lost our focus, lost the original reason for integration - to equalize opportunity."

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