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April 27, 2012On Sept. 25, 1957, I sat in my social studies class in Moberly while our teacher asked us how we would like to be in Little Rock that day. Most of us just looked at each other and shrugged, not realizing the significance. We knew something was going on, but it didn't affect us.
How wrong we were. That was the day nine black teenagers became adults.
Escorted by the 101st Airborne under the order of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the U.S Supreme Court, the teenagers entered Little Rock's Central High School, defying Gov. Orville Faubus who ignored the federal law to integrate, and used the National Guard to block their entrance on Sept. 4.
"Warriors Don't Cry" is Melba Pattillo Beals' account of that first year. All were bullied, choked, kicked, hit, spit on and threatened with lynching daily by the majority of over 2,000 students who attended Central at that time. When the 101st Airborne left and the National Guard took its place, they did nothing to protect the group, except to step in at the last minute to make sure the teens were not killed.
Teachers and administrators looked the other way, and when an obvious act of bullying occurred, they blamed the teens for inciting the incident.
Through the first few weeks of that year while the 101st kept guard, one of the soldiers kept a special eye on Beals and saved her many times from injury. From him, she learned that "warriors don't cry," and she kept that mantra long after he left.
Through the year, Beals kept a journal since she became a virtual prisoner in her own house, fearing for her safety if she left. She wrote "Warriors Don't Cry" years after the incidents, but her recollections of her actions and emotions are those of a 15-year-old girl.
It's hard being with Little Rock white people. I don't know if I can do this integration thing forever. It feels like this is something people do for only a little while. I want to run away now. I want a happy day.
At the end of each day, Beals returned to her brother, her mother and her Grandmother India who comforted her and prepared her for the next day. And, eventually, the last day comes.
In October 1987, Beals and her eight former classmates returned to Central High School for the first time since 1958.
I let the memories flood in and listen closely. On those same stone steps I can hear the click clack of leather boots - boots worn by soldiers of the 101st Airborne sent to escort us past the raging mob.
In 2007 they returned again, this time to the Arkansas Capital grounds where a statue of the nine is unveiled - facing the office once held by Faubus.
While this book was intended for middle school students, adults can get immersed in Beals' experience as well. It is a powerful, thought-provoking read, even after 55 years.