Melba Patillo Beals was born on December 7, 1941, in Little Rock, Arkansas, on the same day that Japanese troops bombed the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor (now called Pearl Harbor Day). The first-born child of Lois and Will Patillo, Beals was born with a scalp infection, which caused significant complications. Her health was further compromised by the fact that she was African American; white nurses and doctors did very little to help her. Luckily, Beals’s mother spoke to a janitor who had overheard a doctor recommending Epsom salts to clean the infection. Beals’s mother got the Epsom salts, and Beals survived.
At the time that Beals was born, black and white people in many parts of America (especially the southern states) lived in a legally segregated society. After the Civil War, the “Jim Crow” Laws were put into place to thwart the advancement of black people, and during the time that Beals was a child, these laws severely restricted the rights of black people. Beals’s mother was a teacher, and her father worked for the railroad. Though they were better off than many other blacks in Arkansas, they were still subject to the same injustices as the rest of their community. As Beals describes in this book, most black people lived in constant fear of making white people angry and facing brutal, violent retaliation for even the smallest offense. For example, Beals witnessed her father stand powerless as the milkman sexually harassed her mother. Yet Beals’s mother, Lois, fought through the prejudices at the University of Arkansas and managed to obtain a master’s degree in education. Though Lois encouraged her husband, Will, to finish his degree as well, he felt unable to do so. By the time Beals was eleven, Will had moved out of the house.
Aside from her parents, the strongest influence in Beals’s life was her grandma, India. India was deeply religious, and she taught Beals to look to the Bible for guidance. She also taught Beals to rely on God for strength, a lesson that would help her later when she became one of the first black students to enter Little Rock’s all-white high school in the fall of 1957.
In 1954, when Beals was twelve, the Supreme Court made a momentous decision in the lawsuit Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first black justice on the Supreme Court, argued on behalf of a young African-American girl named Linda Brown, who was prevented from attending a nearby all-white elementary school. Marshall was also the chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and he argued that segregation, the idea validated by the “separate but equal” finding in Plessy vs. Ferguson, was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed after the abolition of slavery, stated that all citizens of the United States were guaranteed the same rights, including the same rights to public education and protection under the law.
The Supreme Court found that segregation was indeed unconstitutional, and civil rights activists began to work toward integration and equal rights for white and black people. Their largest battle was the effort to integrate the schools in southern communities. Three years later, in Little Rock, Arkansas, nine black students were sent to the all-white Central High School to force integration. This group was known as the Little Rock Nine, and Beals was one of them.
Beals spent one terrible year at Central High School, facing death threats, violence, and hatred. The governor of Arkansas at the time, Orval Faubus, sent troops to prevent the Little Rock Nine from entering the school. President Eisenhower decreed that Faubus was defying federal law and sent federal troops down to force the integration. Their battle continued throughout the school year. The next year, Faubus shut down the Little Rock schools so that he would not have to allow desegregation, and Beals was eventually sent to live with a family of white Quakers in California. Two more years passed before black students were allowed back in Central High School. After graduating from high school, Beals relocated to California, where she went to college and married a white man named John. Beals dreamed of becoming a journalist, and John wanted a housewife, so they eventually divorced. They had one child, Kelli. Beals got a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University; she later became a reporter for NBC, and then a communications consultant and an author.