Interview with Melba Pattillo Beals


Melba Pattillo Beals:

The next time I went to Central High School, I was accompanied by the 101 Airborne Division.** Shall we start again? The next time I went to Central High School, I was escorted by the 101 Airborne Division—members of that troop and they were in uniform. I went in a jeep. There was a jeep behind me with a [gap] gun and one in front. Actually, we were in a station wagon, there were two jeeps accompanying us, and there were helicopters overhead. And I went in not through the side doors, but up the front stairs, and there was a feeling of pride and hope that yes, this is the United States, yes there is a reason why I salute the flag, and it's going to be OK, you know. These guys just go with us the first time, it's going to be OK. The troops did not, however, mean the end of harassment, it meant the declaration of war.** The troops, the presence of the troops certainly would not have lived, and wherever they are, my god, you know. I hope you're all happy because I wouldn't be alive today without them. But it didn't mean that, they could not come to classroom with us for example, for most of the time unless we were having a really big crisis. And kids would do things like, in the study hall in particular, walk by and drop a lighted piece of paper on your books. We changed books as much as three or four times a week. You go to your locker and there would be ink all over everything you own.** I was walking down a hall one day with my personal guards—name was Johnny Black at the time—and somebody, I think I anyway somebody spewed acid in my eye. They walked up with a water gun, they do that often, and you'd expect water, that'd be cool. This time I got acid in my eyes and everything went flying and I had long hair, and he took my braid and slammed my head beneath the water faucet. And when I got to the doctor, they said "He had saved the quality of your sight, if not your sight." You'd be walking, you'd be on the first floor and three floors up somebody would drop a lighted stick of dynamite down the stairs. The troops were wonderful, you know, there was some fear that they were dating the girls in high school and they—I don't care what they were doing, they were wonderful. They were disciplined. They were attentive. They were caring. They didn't baby us, but they were there. I remember one time asking one guy what we were going to do if they [gap] this dynamite on us as they usually did, and he said, "I'm going to pick you up and I'm running like hell." And he did, and I was a big girl, so I mean, they cared. For the first time I began to feel like there is this slight buffer zone between me and this hell on the other side of this wall. They couldn't be with us everywhere. They couldn't be with us, for example, in the ladies bathroom. They couldn't be with us in gym. We'd be showering in gym and someone turn your shower into scalding. You'd be walking out to the volleyball court and someone would break a bottle and trip you on the bottle. I have scars on my right knee from that.** Anything that you can think of that one human being could possible do to another they did. And this is what was frightening to me, because there were things that had never entered my mind to do to another human being. And after a while as a child, I started saying to myself, "Am I less than human? Why did they do this to me? What's wrong with me?" And so you go through stages even as a child. First you're in pain, then you're angry, and then you try to fight back and then you just don't care. You just, you can't care. You hope you do die. You hope that there's an end. And then you just mellow out and you just realize that survival is day-to-day and you start to grasp your own spirit, you start to grasp the, the depth of the human spirit and you start to understand your own ability to cope no matter what and that is the greatest lesson I learned.