Melba’s year at Central High School centers around maturation, race relations, and challenging the power dynamic in the United States. In the segregated South, white people had power and black people did not. The small act of defiance of nine black children entering an all-white school took on such significance because it threatened to change the way white segregationists wielded their power. With this and many other acts, integrationists such as Melba showed that the power of the white segregationists was a fragile illusion. Melba’s story makes clear that the power of whites lie, to some extent, in the consent of the black people. Once blacks—even just a few of them—stopped consenting, the power structure began to fail.
Grandma India teaches Melba about passive resistance. Melba learns to smile and meet every outrageous abuse with a polite “thank you.” For Grandma India, power lies not in displays of physical strength or firepower, but in inner strength and faith. The mobs of white people who rely on numbers to overwhelm a tiny black teenager are only showing that they don’t have the power they say they do. Grandma India tells Melba she is only a victim if she lets herself be one. Melba learns that nobody has any power to hurt her unless she gives it to them. This simple act of refusing to be afraid when people threaten her changes not just the way Melba sees herself but also the way other people see her.
People’s perceptions of race cloud the way they behave throughout Warriors Don’t Cry. Melba is born into a segregated society, in which black people lack the basic rights afforded to white people. In Melba’s narrative, this is a system more or less acknowledged by both white and black people. And though the black people suffer much more in the system, they also help to enforce it out of fear of retribution from the white people. The white people are afraid that the black people will rise up and take over their lives, and the black people are afraid of being punished by the white people for rising up. This mutual fear often turns into mistrust and hatred. Even those within the white community who try to reach out to blacks are called traitors and are threatened with violence.
Though Melba has a valid reason to mistrust many white people throughout the course of the book, she learns that people can make decisions based more on honor, trust, and love than race. Link, the white boy whose love for his nanny humanizes black people for him, proves to Melba that she can trust some white people. The two white people who save Elizabeth Eckford from the white mob and the Quaker family that takes her in after she leaves Arkansas are other trustworthy whites. Eventually, she falls in love with John, the white soldier who woos her in college. Outside of the tangle of racial conflict set up by the history in Little Rock, Melba can learn to relate to people as people rather than as members of a race.