Melba Pattillo Beals is born on December 7, 1941 amid the uproar over the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Melba, a nine-pound baby, is born at a white hospital that also serves black rail workers, such as her father, Howell. She is delivered with forceps, causing an injury to her scalp that nearly kills her. The doctor ordered nurses to irrigate Melba’s head with Epsom salts and water every few hours, but they refused to give proper care to a black girl. She probably would not have survived if not for a black janitor’s passing mention of the doctor’s instructions. When Melba is four years old she begins to question the segregation that she sees every day in Arkansas, such as not being allowed to ride a merry-go-round or watching her family get overcharged for food and then humiliated by Mr. Waylan, a white grocer, for questioning the injustice.
Life changes when the Supreme Court issues its decision in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas on May 17, 1954. May 17 is also the day on which Melba is nearly raped by a white man seeking revenge for the verdict. Melba is rescued by Marissa, an occasional bully and social outcast, who beats the man over the head with her leather schoolbag then runs away with Melba. When they reach Melba’s house, Marissa explains what happened to Melba’s grandmother, India. Grandma India makes a bath for Melba and the family decides not to go to the police, since Howell fears that talking to them could make things worse. On May 24, 1955, the Little Rock school board announces a plan to integrate the all-white Central High School. When Melba’s teacher at Horace Mann High School asks if anyone who lives within Central High’s district would like to attend the school, Melba raises her hand. She is mostly inspired by curiosity about Central, and reasons that, if schools became open to black people, other services would also become available to them.
Melba spends August of 1957, the month before she eventually enrolls at Central, visiting her Uncle Clancey in Cincinnati, Ohio along with Grandma India, Mother Lois, and her younger brother, Conrad. Melba enjoys the relative freedom that black people have in Cincinnati. She is pleased not to have to cross the street when a white person passes on the sidewalk, to browse in a department store without anyone looking at her disapprovingly, to get served in a nice restaurant or at a movie theater concession stand, and to be invited over to a white neighbor’s home for dinner. While in Cincinnati, Mother Lois gets a call from Melba’s father, Howell, saying that Melba has been chosen to help integrate Central High. Though her mother and grandmother initially disapprove of her decision and are angry with her for not first asking for their permission, they later become her biggest sources of emotional support and protection. Initially, seventeen black students, including Melba, are selected to integrate Central, but only nine, later nicknamed the Little Rock Nine, attend the school. They include Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Carlotta Walls, Gloria Ray, Thelma Mothershed, Terrence Roberts, and Minnijean Brown. Melba knew all of the other children prior to their attendance at Central, but Brown is a particularly close friend.
On September 4, the day that school starts, hundreds of segregationists—some from as far away as Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia—show up to protest the integration of the school. As soon as Melba and Mother Lois arrive at the school, a horde of angry racists confront them, chanting and shouting racial slurs. Mother Lois pulls Melba forward to try to find the other members of the Little Rock Nine. They reach a “hub of activity” and find Elizabeth Eckford alone in the middle of it, cradling her schoolbooks while “a huge crowd of white people” scream at her back. Melba and her mother are harassed, grabbed, and chased by white men, one of whom carries a rope. Though Melba does not yet have a driver’s license, Mother Lois throws her the car keys and prompts her to run to the car. Melba gets to the car before her mother, but they both manage to drive away and escape the rabid crowd. Back home, Melba says that she wishes to go back to Horace Mann High, which prompts Grandma India to call her a quitter. When Minnijean Brown calls with an invitation to go to the community center, Grandma India forbids Melba to go out of concern for her safety, and Melba breaks down crying. Her grandmother tells her to make this her “last cry,” for she is “a warrior on the battlefield for [her] Lord” and “warriors don’t cry,” for they know that God is always by their side. Soon thereafter, Melba starts to get threatening phone calls from harassers. Grandma India starts to keep a night watch over the family with the help of her shotgun, which she nicknames “Mr. Higgenbottom.”
Melba struggles to adjust to the sacrifices that she makes for integration, particularly the limitations it places on her social life. She frequently visits the home of Daisy Bates, where she and the other members of the Little Rock Nine meet the press. While there, Melba also meets Thurgood Marshall whose positivity and eloquence are inspirational to Melba. In late September, Melba attends a court hearing with Marshall and Bates to hear Governor Orval Faubus’s challenge to federally mandated integration, which is struck down by Judge Ronald Davies. Melba is excited to think that on Monday she will officially be a student at Central High, though she learns quickly that her entry into the school will not be easy. She strategically enters via a side entrance with a police officer and is quickly hustled down the hall, past hostile onlookers. On her way to her first class, a mother spits on Melba and hurls racial slurs at her. When she gets to her first class, her teacher ignores her and her classmates harass her. She gets a reprieve from the abuse when she enters Mrs. Pickwick’s shorthand class. Mrs. Pickwick is sympathetic and sternly reprimands the white students who attempt to harass Melba. Melba is suddenly rushed out of class and into the principal’s office by her guide. Once there, Melba learns that a huge mob has amassed outside. The Little Rock Nine are smuggled past the crowd through a dark cellar by Gene Smith, Assistant Chief of the Little Rock Police Department. Safely back home, Melba and her family learn from a newscast that the mob took over the school, beat up a black reporter, then beat up numerous white reporters. At the invitation of a reporter, Melba pens her own story about her first morning at Central High, which ends up on the front page of the local newspaper.
Some order is restored when President Eisenhower, insistent that Governor Faubus comply with the Supreme Court’s order to integrate, sends federal troops from the 101st Airborne Division. Federal officials arrive at Melba’s home one night with a message from the President, asking her to return to school and assuring her that, if she does, she will be protected. Sarge drives some of the Little Rock Nine to school in a car that is part of a convoy. Danny, a young soldier of slight build, serves as her bodyguard. Melba resumes her classes and once again encounters harassment. In some spaces, such as Mrs. Pickwick’s class, she is protected, but in others, she encounters indifference or even antipathy from teachers and administrators. From Danny, Melba learns how to be confident and alert so that, like a soldier, she will be prepared for an attack. This comes particularly in handy when someone lobs a stick of dynamite at her in a stairwell.
In the midst of the drama surrounding the integration of Central High, Melba’s crush, Vince (a student from her previous, all-black school), asks her out on her first date. The joy of her happy Sunday outing with Vince is marred by news that the Arkansas National Guard, which is often more sympathetic to segregationists and fails to protect the black students, has taken over security at Central. At the end of the school day, a group of girls traps Melba in a bathroom stall and tossing a flaming wad of toilet paper flying inside, but Melba escapes. Melba’s attackers are becoming bolder and more violent. Even the return of Danny and the 101st Division does not protect her from vicious attacks. While walking down the hallway, she is nearly blinded by a boy who throws acid into her eyes, but Danny flushes her eyes out with water. During a meeting with a group of student segregationist leaders organized by a Norwegian journalist, the white students express their outrage at having troops in their school, while the black students defend themselves from accusations that their attendance at Central will lead to intermarriage or black students ruling over whites. Melba notices signs of stress in several members of the Little Rock Nine. Minnijean becomes obsessed with trying out for the choir, believing that if the white students hear her sing, they will accept her. Gloria and Elizabeth become solemn and withdrawn. Jefferson, like the two other boys, endures “a lot of brutal physical punishment.”
A day before Thanksgiving break, Danny breaks protocol and speaks to Melba, urging her to take care of herself. When she asks if he is leaving, he does not respond. A week before her sixteenth birthday, without Danny by her side, Melba physically deflects an attack from a white boy. She sets about planning her sixteenth birthday party, mostly inviting old friends from Horace Mann High and excluding all of the Little Rock Nine except for Minnijean so as to help her feel more like her old self, as opposed to the well-known political figure that she has become. Vince is the first and only guest to arrive at her party. Melba learns that the others will not come out of fear of being killed for associating with Melba. On December 14, four days before Christmas vacation, the Arkansas Gazette reports that the army will cut 432 soldiers from Central High. On December 17, a day before the break, Minnijean is involved in a cafeteria incident in which a bowl of chili spills onto two boys who are harassing her. As a result, she is suspended. A second cafeteria incident results in her expulsion. With the help of the NAACP, she moves to New York and attends the private New Lincoln school.
Melba enjoys Christmas, which she spends with her family, including her father, and Vince. Talking to Vince now, she realizes that they have less in common and that he spends most of their time together asking what it is like to be a celebrity. In the new year, Melba begins to feel “weary and nervous,” despite her New Year’s resolutions to try to remain strong. She tells her grandmother that she wishes she were dead. When Melba is pelted with eggs in the morning before school, Grandma India encourages Melba to turn the tables on her attackers by making them think that she likes the abuse. She follows her grandmother’s advice and, as predicted, the students think that she is crazy, and they back off. She has more difficulty avoiding Andy, a segregationist who threatens to kill her. She is saved by a tall, muscular boy “with a bushy shock of blond curls” who arranges for her to drive his Chevy away from the scene. He introduces himself as Link and forms a protective friendship with Melba in which he feeds her information about the segregationists’ plans to sabotage her at Central. Though he offers Melba protection, Link does not understand how the hatred at Central isolates her. He asks that she give an interview saying that most of the students at Central are not so bad. He is more worried about the school’s reputation and the cancellation of school activities than Melba’s feelings about lying. As they get to know each other, Link tells her more about his family. His father is also a white supremacist, but “isn’t for beating up anybody’s children.” He later introduces her to his nanny, Nana Healey, who suffers from what Link thinks is tuberculosis and lives in poverty without access to proper healthcare. After a lifetime of service to his family, Link’s parents dismiss her without providing her any financial help. Nana Healey later dies on Link’s graduation day. Meanwhile, Mother Lois faces the possibility of not having her teaching contract renewed unless she agrees to withdraw Melba from school. Enlisting the support of the press, she draws public attention to racist school board officials’ attempt to coerce her. When Bishop O.J. Sherman, a powerful clergyman in the black community, intervenes, Lois’s school administrator offers her a contract renewal.
On May 27, Ernest Green becomes the first black person to graduate from Central High. Link graduates in the same year and goes to a college in Massachusetts. Melba spends her summer receiving awards and special treatment, along with other members of the Little Rock Nine, for their sacrifices in the name of integration. Unfortunately, segregationists continue to wage battles in court, and Governor Faubus closes all of Little Rock’s high schools. Segregationists used their economic and political power to put pressure on the black community to get the remaining members of the Little Rock Nine to leave Central. By September of 1959, the NAACP intervenes, launching an effort to find families that would take in members of the Little Rock Nine so that they could finished their educations. Melba moves in with the McCabes in Northern California and finishes high school there. Only Carlotta Walls and Jefferson Thomas stay at Central and graduate.
In 1962, Melba enrolls at San Francisco State University, where she lives as the only resident of color in “a previously all-white residence house.” She meets John, and they marry after six months of courtship. John is white, which makes Mother Lois skeptical of his and Melba’s union. The couple have one child, Kellie, then divorce after seven years due to John’s backward ideas about women’s roles and Melba’s ambition to be a journalist. Link, with whom Melba maintained a correspondence, is upset to hear that she married a white man, for Melba told him that they could not date due to his being white. Melba never hears from Link again. She enrolls at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and becomes a reporter for an NBC affiliate in California. She believes that her experience at Little Rock taught her “to have courage and patience.” It also taught her that an understanding of people’s interdependence can lead all mankind “to respect and honor our differences.”