Warriors Don’t Cry begins when Melba and eight other black men and women in their forties return to their home state of Arkansas to meet the then-governor, Bill Clinton. Melba, the narrator and author, explains that the group, called the Little Rock Nine, is visiting Central High School in Little Rock. As teenagers in 1957, the nine of them were the first African-American students to be integrated into the school.
When Melba is twelve years old, the Supreme Court rules that separate schools for whites are illegal, a ruling called Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In the year after the ruling, Melba sees very little change in segregation. She is still at an all-black high school, but she and sixteen other black students sign up to attend the white school.
Because of the threat of violence, the number of black students who will participate in the integration is decreased from seventeen to nine. Several times in the few days before school is supposed to start, lawsuits are filed that threaten to stop the nine students. Governor Faubus declares that he is going to send the Arkansas National Guard to the high school, though he does not say whether they are there to protect the nine or to stop them from entering the school. Grandma India begins to stay awake at night with a shotgun near her. Finally, a few days after school has started, federal court judge Ronald Davies orders that the students be allowed to attend.
On September 3, 1957, Melba and her mother drive to Central High School for Melba’s first day of class. A huge white mob has gathered, and the Arkansas National Guard encircles the school. Luckily, both Melba and her mother make it to the car and escape unharmed. Melba is not allowed to leave her house or answer the door or the phone. She tells her grandmother that she wants to go back to Horace Mann, her old high school, but her grandmother insists that Melba is not a quitter.
President Eisenhower and Governor Faubus meet and attempt to resolve the problem of integration in Arkansas, but the meeting is unsuccessful, and on September 20, 1957, the State of Arkansas goes to federal court before Judge Davies. Judge Davies rules that the Arkansas National Guard must be removed and that the Little Rock Nine must be allowed into Central High School. Governor Faubus removes the guard and predicts that blood will run in the streets of Little Rock if the schools are integrated.
On Monday, September 23, 1957, Melba and the other black students go to school. They are again greeted by a mob of angry white people. In the middle of one class, Melba is forced to flee to the principal’s office, as the mob has broken the barricades and is headed for the school. Someone in the principal’s office proposes that they give the crowd one of the children to kill so the others can escape. Gene Smith, the assistant chief of police, smuggles the nine students out of the school. The day after the mob attack, Melba stays home and reads that President Eisenhower has announced he will use force to prevent this kind of mob rule and to enforce federal law. The next day, the 101st Airborne Division (a division of war heroes) arrives in Little Rock.
Each black student has his or her own escort from the 101st Airborne Division. Melba’s solider, Danny, protects her when someone attempts to throw acid in her eyes. In October, Melba, Ernie, and Minnijean meet with some of Central High’s white students under the guidance of a Norwegian reporter, Mrs. Jorumn Rickets, who hopes to foster some sort of understanding between the two groups. The meeting is a failure. Eisenhower withdraws the 101st Airborne, and the nine students are forced to rely on the Arkansas National Guard for protection. The Nine continue to be terrorized: one day, white girls attack Melba in the showers and hold her under scalding water. At the same time, the newspaper that Mrs. Bates (the President of the NAACP in Little Rock) runs is being financially ruined by white businesspeople, and the State Attorney is threatening NAACP officials across the state.
On December 17th, white boys surround Minnijean in the school cafeteria. Minnijean throws hot chili on two of the boys. Minnijean is suspended. The segregationists start a new chant: “One nigger down and eight to go.” Minnijean is allowed to return to school, and a short while later, a white boy pours a bucket of soup on her head. Later, the boy who poured soup on Minnijean attacks her, and a fight ensues. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but the white students allege that Minnijean fought back. Minnijean is expelled from Central High School, and three white students are suspended. The NAACP arranges for a scholarship for Minnijean at a high school in New York.
One day, Melba is almost surrounded by a group of white boys led by Andy, her main tormentor. She is saved by a white boy named Link, who gives her the keys to his car. That night, Melba returns Link’s car to him, and he begins to warn her of the plans that the segregationists have made for her. Melba and Link become friends. On April 16, Judge Davies is removed from the Little Rock integration lawsuits and replaced by an Arkansas judge named Harry Lemley.
One Saturday morning, Link and Melba visit Nana Healey, Link’s black nanny. Link thinks that Nana Healey has tuberculosis. Melba finds a doctor in the black community to tend to her. Nana Healey is dying, and Melba has to tell Link. Meanwhile, the integration case is reopened, with Judge Lemley presiding, and the school board once again asks for a postponement of integration at Central High School. Melba’s mother, Lois, is nearly fired from her teaching job of fourteen years because Melba won’t withdraw from Central High School. The end of the school year is approaching, and the segregationists are desperate to keep Ernie, the oldest of the nine, from graduating. Yet, on May 27, Ernie graduates. The next day, Link calls in tears. Nana Healey has died. Link asks Melba to leave Little Rock with him. Melba agrees to go, knowing she will not follow through with her promise.
By May 29, the Nine (including Minnijean) have begun a tour of the northern states, where they are treated like heroes and celebrities. Meanwhile, the integration effort in Little Rock is disintegrating. Judge Lemley grants the school board’s plea to delay integration for three years. The NAACP sets up a round of appeals, and by September of 1958, the students are gearing up for their second year at Central. Rather than allow that to happen, Governor Faubus shuts down all of Little Rock’s high schools. While Melba is waiting to return to school, Grandma India is diagnosed with leukemia and dies in October of 1958. By September of 1959, the NAACP has decided that the strain on the families is too great. They ask people in NAACP chapters across the country to take in the students. Melba is sent to Santa Rosa, California, to the home of the McCabes, a white Quaker family. The McCabes nurture and care for Melba and convince her to go to college in January of 1960.
In September of 1960, Central is again open to integration, but only two of the nine students are readmitted. They eventually graduate. Melba begins to attend San Francisco State University with predominantly white students. One night in 1962, while she is at school, a white soldier named John comes to her room to meet her roommate. There is mutual attraction, and soon they are engaged to be married. Melba relates how she keeps in touch with Link during this time. But when Link hears that she is getting married, and to a white man, he is furious, as Melba had always maintained she could not date a white man. They never speak again. Six months later, Melba and John are married. They have a daughter named Kelli. Seven years after their daughter’s birth, they split up because Melba wants to be a reporter and work, and John wants a housewife. Melba goes to journalism school at Columbia and becomes a reporter. She ends the book by saying that if her experience at Central High School has taught her anything, it is that we are all one.