Melba worries that integration will be halted again. At the same time, she prays for the strength to make it through the school year. The children meet at Daisy Bates’s house. The Little Rock Nine are split between two cars driven by NAACP officials. They cannot take the usual route to Central due to police warnings that segregationists might be waiting for them. Indeed, half a block away from the school’s Sixteenth Street entrance are hundreds of white people shouting racial slurs.
Despite the court order, the white people in this community, and some from other parts of the South, remain firmly opposed to the black students’ presence at Central. Their collective commitment to white supremacy and racism is evident in their gathering to harass the students and abuse them into submission.
Inside of the school, the shouting and harassment worsens. Melba notes that the inside of the school feels like a museum. It is the largest building that she has ever entered. A petite woman with dark hair and glasses leads them to the principal’s office. Melba recognizes Mrs. Huckaby, the vice principal for girls, from previous meetings with the school board. She introduces them to Principal Jess Matthews who acknowledges the Little Rock Nine with a frown. Mrs. Huckaby hands them their schedules and instructs them to wait for their guides. Suddenly, Thelma has another attack. The students are concerned but Mrs. Huckaby rushes them out.
Melba’s comparison of Central to a museum indicates that the school has far more space and resources than what was available to her at Horace Mann. She feels overwhelmed. The principal’s displeasure with the black students’ presences makes it seem as though she does not belong there. Once again, Thelma has an attack due to her heart condition during another tense moment and, again, the students are urged to proceed without her, as though nothing should interrupt their effort at Central.
The students notice that none of them have the same homeroom or shared classes. When Melba questions this, a man sitting behind the long desk says, in a mean, booming voice, “You wanted integration…you got integration.” Melba finds herself alone and following “a muscular, stocky white woman with closely cropped black hair” past the first groups of students who attempt to bar her way. She is frightened and feels numb. Her fantasies of Central do not measure up to the “treacherous” reality. She runs to keep up with her guide, despite the distractions of the angry voices around her. Suddenly, she feels a slap, then spit dribbling down her face. A white woman a little older than Mother Lois blocks her path and screams “Nigger!” The woman hysterically says that the next thing black people will want to do is marry one of their children, which strikes Melba as odd, given that she is still forbidden to date and certainly would not want to marry a mean white person from Little Rock.
The separation of the black students effectively eliminates their only base of support at the school. Melba admits that she has underestimated the hostility toward the Little Rock Nine at the Central. Though there are plenty of white adults in the street who oppose the presence of black students, Melba is surprised to encounter similar hostility from educators. Central has always been a space that Melba wanted to enter, but it is now a dangerous and hostile space. Melba finds herself confronted by the fears of white people—sexual fears of miscegenation, but really, fears about the slow erosion of white supremacy—that she is too young to understand fully. She is also unsure of how to react, particularly in response to an elder.
When Melba enters her first class, a hush falls over the room. She walks toward an empty seat and all the students sitting nearby move away. The teacher ignores her and allows a boy to heckle Melba and threaten her with violence. The next class is gym where girls are playing volleyball outside. Though the gym teacher is pleasant, the girls make a point of aiming the ball at Melba’s head, hitting her hard in one instance. While trying to escape the cruelty of the girls, she worries about the nearby mob. The gym teacher alerts Melba to a group of women jumping the school fence and shouting obscenities. Melba runs away, but a student sticks her foot out and trips her, causing Melba to fall face forward and cut her knee and elbow. A girl says, “What do you know. Niggers bleed red blood.” She tries to kick Melba, but Melba grabs her foot and twists it, as she had seen wrestlers do during the matches, and the girl falls backward.
Melba’s first day of school is characterized by a series of moments of emotional and physical abuse. When she is not facing threats from students, she faces them from the mob gathered outside of the school. There is nowhere to escape, neither inside nor outside of the school. The ease with which the white students hurt Melba, as well as the comment about her blood being red, which could either be genuine surprise or sarcasm, indicate how Jim Crow has taught the white students that black people are sub-human and unworthy even of the consideration they would normally show a dog.
Melba runs inside, looking for the office. She bumps into people who hit her and call her names. She begins to cry. Crippled by fear, she thinks of Grandma India saying the following, “God never loses one of his flock.” Suddenly, she sees her stocky guide again who takes her to Mrs. Pickwick’s shorthand class. Mrs. Pickwick is a petite, dark-haired woman who welcomes Melba, urges her not to sit near the window, and tells anyone who tries to heckle her that they will be sent to the principal’s office. While walking toward her seat, she sees the crowd in the street. The crowd outnumbers the police who are often powerless to stop people from running toward the school.
Melba takes solace in her faith that she is doing God’s work, and in the memory of her grandmother’s encouragement. Melba experiences relative peace in Mrs. Pickwick’s class. Finally, Melba meets an adult who empathizes with her and who tries to ensure her care. Meanwhile, the crowd outside threatens to overtake the police in a scene that illustrates the law’s inability to eliminate or even control white supremacy.
As Melba settles into shorthand class, her guide reappears and says that she has to go to the principal’s office. In the office, two girls in the Little Rock Nine are crying and the staff is frantic about how to control the crowd. The children are trapped inside the school. Someone suggests letting the mob have one child in order to save the others. It frightens Melba to think that the adults would be willing to let her or one of her friends hang. Then, Gene Smith, Assistant Chief of the Little Rock Police Department, enters and takes charge, leading the children out through the cellar and into a basement garage where two cars await. Smith instructs the students to keep the windows rolled up, the doors locked, and their faces away from the windows and tells the driver to move fast and not stop driving for any reason. The car speeds through the mob and gets Melba safely home. The driver tells her to get in the house right away. Melba makes him the second white man whom she will pray for God to protect.
The school staff’s reaction to the mob that has overwhelmed the school is an indication of how ill-prepared the administrators are for the task of integration. Worse, while two children are already emotionally distraught over the difficult day, a staff member inhumanely offers to sacrifice a child to the angry mob, suggesting that they do not value black children as they would white children. With his quick thinking and command of a dangerous situation, Gene Smith emerges as a hero. Though he is simply doing his job, Melba feels thankful for him, as she has lost faith in so many of the white authority figures around her.
Grandma India rushes out of the front door to greet Melba. The alarmed neighbors stand outside and ask if Melba is all right. One, Mrs. Floyd, says that, now that Melba has had her “lesson,” she need not “go back to that awful school anymore.” Grandma India ushers Melba past her and onto the couch of their living room where she can comfortably watch TV and drink Grapette soda.
Though Melba needs the black community’s support in making it through Central, Mrs. Floyd’s comment is indicative of the fear that some black people, particularly older ones, felt in response to challenges to Jim Crow. The “lesson” is, presumably, that the South will not change.
Melba learns that, even after the students are safely out of the school, the mob continues to rage. Mother Lois comes home and asks if Melba is all right. Grandma India asks about the cuts on her knee, but Melba decides to tell them later so as not to cause her mother further concern. Melba learns that one reason why the Little Rock Nine were able to get into Central that morning is because the mob busied themselves with beating up black and white reporters, as well as some “out-of-towners.” Even those who reached the relative safety of police cars were showered with a hail of rocks.
The segregationist mob is hostile toward anyone who seeks to change their tradition of segregation. This includes people who are seen as outsiders, whether or not they truly are. This news about what occurred outside of Central reveals that Little Rock is not only a racist city in 1957, but a deeply provincial one, fearful of any outside influences.
Conrad rushes in next to greet Melba. His friend, Clark, had told him that she was dead. The family reads a copy of the Arkansas Democrat, which is filled with pictures of the mob. Phone calls pour in, some from concerned family and friends, and others from strangers issuing threats. One phone call is from a news reporter who asks Melba about the situation and is impressed with how articulate she is. He offers her an opportunity to write an article about her first morning at Central, which she begins writing right away. The next day, the story is published by the Associated Press and is placed on the front page of the local newspaper.
By writing about her experience at Central, Melba gets her first opportunity to publish an article in a newspaper, foreshadowing her future career as a writer and journalist. By writing her own story, Melba is able to exercise some control over the unfolding narrative of integration at Central. Rumors are rampant in her community about what occurred at Central. By taking control of her own narrative, she seeks to combat the misrepresentations of her first full school day.
In the article, Melba talks about being glad that she went to Central that morning, despite her experience being an abnormal one for a fifteen-year-old. She writes about feeling as though she “were lost on an island” and how she longed to assure her white classmates that she would not hurt them—that she is “an average teenager,” just like them. Every time she thought about giving up, someone kind would come up and spur her on with kind words or positivity. She mentions that she did not know how dangerous the crowd was until she was told that she had to leave for her safety. Still, Melba thinks that integration is possible in Little Rock.
When speaking to the media, Melba balances her harrowing story of a day full of verbal and physical abuse with anecdotes about support she received from white students, though she makes no mention of such support in this portion of the memoir. The inclusion of these kind white students (probably make-believe) who “[spurred] her on” may be an expression of her hope that she will one day encounter such support.
After Melba writes the article, she acknowledges to herself that she has not told the whole truth, but instead a version that will not interfere with the process of integration. She thinks that, maybe if she remains patient and prays, one day the white students really will welcome her and treat her like an ordinary human being.
Melba refrains from detailing her abuse at Central out of concern that others will perceive this as evidence that her efforts are futile. Furthermore, she remains optimistic that, eventually, the white students will grow accustomed to her presence and accept it.
That evening, the Pattillo family watches Governor Faubus deliver a statement from his Sea Island, Georgia retreat, urging NAACP leaders and school officials to allow a “cooling-off period” before resuming integration. In response, President Eisenhower commits to using the full power of the United States to carry out the orders of the Federal Court. Still, on Tuesday morning, the mob returns.
The Arkansas governor seeks to stall progress to placate his constituency of segregationists, while the President insists on the state’s obedience to the law. The mob, ruled by its own internal logic and commitment to white supremacy, continues to terrorize the Little Rock Nine.