Early on Tuesday evening, the 101st Airborne Division arrives. The Pattillo family has dinner in front of the television so that they can hear President Eisenhower’s explanation of why he has sent the troops. President Eisenhower condemns the mob rule in Little Rock, asserting that it threatens “the very safety of the United States and the free world.” Governor Faubus delivers “a pleading speech” in which he declares that Little Rock has been occupied. Later that night, the doorbell rings. Grandma India announces that it is “white men wearing black hats.” She grabs her shotgun and urges them to state their business. They are from the Office of the United States. They urge Lois to allow Melba to go back to school, assuring her that Melba will be protected.
President Eisenhower sends the troops out of anger toward Governor Faubus’s disrespect of federal authority. The conflict between the President and the governor is less about Melba’s civil rights and safety than it is about Eisenhower’s unwillingness to allow Faubus’s disobedience to persist, out of concern that it could set a dangerous precedent which could disrupt desegregation efforts in other Southern states. He contextualizes Little Rock within a broader effort to maintain order.
On Wednesday morning, they turn the corner near Daisy Bates’s home and see about fifty soldiers from the 101st Division, nicknamed the “Screaming Eagle” Division. People stand around watching. Melba recognizes some ministers from the community’s churches and several of them smile and nod at her. She worries that people see her differently. Thelma and Minnijean also inspect the soldiers. Other students mill about and Melba wonders what they are waiting for. She then remembers that there will be an assembly at school with a military briefing. Reporters and photographers are also present, some of them hanging from trees or standing on cars. Mother Lois whispers “good-bye” and says a prayer along with one of the ministers. The students ride away to Central in a station wagon that is part of a convoy. Their driver, Sarge, is friendly and pleasant, but the reactions from onlookers are mixed. Some wave, while others raise their fists.
The military presence changes the responses from both black and white people to the Little Rock Nine. Whereas before, Melba’s black neighbors seemed to ignore her, they now give her friendly acknowledgement. Some of the “onlookers,” who are presumably white, wave, perhaps in a demonstration of respect to the U.S. military, while others remain obstinately aggressive toward everyone associated with the desegregation effort. Melba thinks that people “see her differently”—as less of a neighbor and more as an object of interest and spectacle.
When the Little Rock Nine arrives at school, groups of soldiers are lined up, just a few feet apart. Others are running up and down the street in front of Central with their bayonets pointed. Sarge explains that it is “crowd control”—keeping the mob away. The soldiers surround the Little Rock Nine. Melba looks at her friends; they, too, are impressed by the display of military power. Melba feels sad that such great lengths must be taken, but proud to live in a country that is willing to take such measures for her.
The military’s orderly presence helps the students feel safer. Melba, however, is ambivalent about their presence. She appreciates them but finds it unfortunate that some white people are so opposed to her existence that she would need to be escorted to school by federal troops. She has both pride in her country and sadness over its slow progress.
Once the Screaming Eagles deliver the children inside, no one seems to know what to do. Principal Jess Matthews breaks the awkwardness with a forced smile, then directs the students to their classrooms. A soldier follows each member of the Little Rock Nine in their respective directions. Melba passes several groups of students who whisper obscenities at her and at the soldier. The soldier, whose name is Danny, ignores them. He tells her that he will wait for her in the hall, for the soldiers are not allowed to enter classrooms. If she needs him, she is to “holler.”
The school’s staff is as ill-prepared for the presence of federal troops as they have been for every other aspect of the integration of Central High. The segregationist students are unfazed by Danny’s military status. His protection of Melba identifies him as an enemy—one sent from the federal government to force change upon the South.
In the English class, the teacher tells Melba to sit near the door where Danny can see her. A “tall, dark-haired boy” begins to harass her and the teacher says nothing. The boy harasses her throughout class and when Melba asks after class if she “could do something to calm people down,” the instructor says that she is not “gonna browbeat their students to please you’all.” Melba is relieved to go to Mrs. Pickwick’s class next where she is left alone.
The teacher’s response indicates that some adults are on the side of the segregationist students. While the principal would not vocalize his disapproval of the black students’ presence, the white teacher does. Moreover, the instructor claims the segregationists as “their students,” thereby excluding Melba.
On the way to Mrs. Pickwick’s classroom, Melba stops to use the restroom. Danny leans against a wall, “across from the bathroom door.” Melba encounters a girl who tells her that there is no sign marked “Colored” on the door. When Melba emerges from the stall, she sees that someone has scrawled “Nigger, go home” on the mirror.
Danny cannot protect Melba from verbal harassment or from the ostracism that she experiences from white teenage girls, who are as eager as their male counterparts to alienate Melba and to assert their white supremacy.
Danny takes Melba to Mrs. Huckaby’s office. Carlotta and Thelma are already there. Mrs. Huckaby says that, from now on, she will escort the girls to the restroom and the cafeteria. They thank her and the four of them walk to the cafeteria. Melba describes a room that “seemed to be half the size of a football field.” Many students turn and look at them, but Melba feels less awkward due to the cafeteria workers being black. This time, she does not feel “the same twinge of embarrassment” at seeing black people in service positions, instead she is “thrilled to see them smiling back at [her].”
The cafeteria is a daunting space both for its size and for it being a space in which students are typically left unspervised by adults. Melba and the others know that they will be even less protected here. She feels less alone and outnumbered when she sees the black cafeteria workers. Still, they occupy the servile positions black people typically held in the South at the time, positions that Melba thinks are less respectable.
Over lunch, a couple of friendly white girls sit with Melba, Thelma, and Carlotta. They say that many of their friends stay away because they fear the segregationists who warned against showing the Little Rock Nine kindness. After lunch, Melba goes to gym class. The bandage on her knee is a reminder of the assault that she fears, but she quickly changes into her gym uniform, moves past someone who tries to block her way, and ignores the “stares and name-calling.” She finds that she is better able to cope and goes out to meet Danny who directs her to the first-level playing field. Several soldiers are posted in the area where gym class will be held, which makes Melba feel much safer.
The knowledge of secret support from some white students, coupled with Danny’s presence, causes Melba to feel more confident in her ability to confront her hecklers and abusers. She is beginning to mimic Danny’s stoicism in response to the segregationists. She is unresponsive to them and avoids them so that she can continue on with her day. Still, she relies on the organized presence of the soldiers to ensure her safety.
Danny greets Melba at the end of class and leads her through an isolated passage where they are confronted by “sideburners”—boys who copy their hairstyles from Elvis and James Dean. They heckle Danny, then one of them slams Melba’s books out of her hand. The thugs then surround them. Though Melba feels an urge to run, Danny tells her to remain still. More soldiers emerge, holding onto their nightsticks. The hooligans disperse and the soldiers withdraw.
Melba experiences a moment in which Danny cannot protect her on his own. The “hooligans” are so bold that they are willing to physically confront the armed soldier. However, Danny shows her how to remain calm and collected, even in a situation of being overwhelmed and threatened.
Melba goes to French class next. There is no heckling; some students even smile. Melba is excited about French class because Mother Lois speaks French fluently, so Melba understands the language. The students talk about suntanning and one student talks about not wanting to get too dark out of fear of “being taken for a nigger.” Things do not get better in study hall where the teacher does not allow Melba to sit where Danny can see her and the students harass her. Suddenly, a helicopter lands and Melba knows that it is time to go home. Protected by the Screaming Eagles helicopter, Melba walks to the army staff car waiting at the curb.
Melba goes to French class thinking that it will offer a brief escape from her abuse. Speaking another language contributes to the sense of feeling like another person. The fact that all of the students are learning another culture and language also places them on more equal footing. The mean comment about “suntanning,” however, reminds Melba of her exclusion based on her skin color.
When Sarge asks the Little Rock Nine about their day, it is the beginning of “a funny round-robin” to see who can give the most colorful description of their day. Usually the stories bring joyful relief, but all laughter halts when someone’s eyes fill with tears. Sarge takes them to Daisy Bates’s home where reporters await. The reporters bombard the students with questions about what it is like inside of the school and how they are treated. One reporter asks Melba if she would like to be white. Without missing a beat, Melba asks if the reporter would like to be “Negro” and goes on to say that she is proud of what she is. Though her color is currently inconvenient, that will not always be the case.
The students try to find humor and levity in an otherwise sad and grim circumstance, though it is difficult. Their hurt is compounded by a reporter’s silly assumption that the problem is about the students’ color, as opposed to racism. The reporter’s question about the students wanting to be white reflects a common misunderstanding that integration is about wanting to be white or about desiring proximity to white people when it is, instead, simply a desire for equal treatment and equal access.
Stan Opotowiski of the New York Post asks Melba if she can write as well as she speaks and offers her an opportunity to write what she is thinking for the paper. Melba thinks she should do it because if not for the “nosy persistence” of Northern reporters, the story of the Little Rock Nine and their demise would have been no more than “a three-line notation buried on the back page of a white newspaper.”
The offer is Melba’s second opportunity in journalism, but for a bigger newspaper. Melba sees it less as a chance to hone her skills and more as a favor to Northern news outlets that have ensured that the Little Rock Nine’s story would not be forgotten. Melba reasons that the reporters’ persistence has kept her alive.
The Little Rock Nine are then whisked off to Dunbar Community Center where they answer more questions in a more formal setting. When Melba arrives home, there are still more reporters on her front porch. Some of them talk to her neighbors. She thinks that she cannot face them, but she does and conducts more interviews. By 9:00 PM, she is exhausted. She wakes up to an alarm radio playing Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue.” That morning, Melba writes in her diary that she knows that Danny is not exactly a bodyguard for her but is there to protect federal power. Still, if not for him, she would hear more of those voices calling her a “nigger” and telling her that she has no right to live. So, she is grateful.
Melba is a part of history now, canonized by all of the interviews and by the diary that she keeps. Her own record of what happens at Central serves as a corollary to what the newspapers print. Hearing Buddy Holly, a popular rock star of the day, on the radio is a reminder of how certain aspects of black culture are welcome in mainstream society, but black people are not.