In the decades after the American Civil War, Arkansas, like all Southern states, adhered to a legal system of segregation, known informally as “Jim Crow”—named after a popular caricature of a black slave in nineteenth-century minstrel shows. Jim Crow laws recognized people as either White or Colored and required separate services and accommodations for each group. By the time Melba, the author of Warriors Don’t Cry, is four years old, she becomes aware of this system of segregation and begins to ask her mother, Lois, and grandmother, India, why white people write “Colored” on “the ugly drinking fountains, the dingy restrooms, and the back of buses.” She also notices that black people seem to live in a state of “constant fear and apprehension,” and highlights the “shame” she feels when she watches members of her family “kowtow to white people.” Melba learns early on that white people are in charge and, even after she agrees to help integrate Central High School, fears that the system might never change. Through recording her experiences, Melba illustrates how Jim Crow not only reduced Black Americans in the South to second-class citizens, but also dehumanized them, allowing for white people to commit a staggeringly wide range of abuses against black people with impunity.
Melba’s experiences with segregation are sometimes life-threatening. From birth to her teen years at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, she is too often the victim of the white supremacist notion that black people’s lives simply do not matter. Though living under the weight of such a denigrating system crushes the spirits of some people, it tends to reinforce the determination of the Beals family to confront the injustices of segregation.
As an infant, Melba nearly dies in a white hospital due to its nurses’ refusal to follow the doctor’s orders to irrigate her head with warm water and Epsom salts “every two or three hours.” When Mother Lois confronts a nurse about this, she tells Lois that they “don’t coddle niggers.” The unwillingness to treat a nearly newborn child with a fever of 106 who is suffering from convulsions illustrates the thorough contempt that white supremacists have for the existence of black people. If not for a black janitor’s passing mention of the doctor’s instructions to Mother Lois, Melba may not have lived. The irony of this story is that Melba’s life is saved by a black janitor who paid attention to the doctor’s directions about Melba’s health, while the white people who had been appointed her caretakers ignore the vital directive. Grandma India attributes the janitor’s chance remark to divine intervention and later comes to believe that God spared Melba’s life so that she could help to lead the fight against injustice at Central High.
While at Central High School, Melba suffers a range of abuses. Some of them are verbal, such as routinely being called a “nigger,” while others are direct threats to her life or health. While using the restroom, a group of white girls send a flaming wad of toilet paper down over the stall and bar the door, preventing Melba from escape. She is able to stomp out the flame, though her blouse is singed. Even with the protection of Danny, a soldier in the 101st Airborne Division sent by President Eisenhower, Melba suffers life-threatening injuries. In one instance, while walking down the hall, a boy throws acid into her face, nearly blinding her. Danny immediately gets her to a sink and repeatedly flushes out her eyes with water, saving her from blindness. Melba thanks God for Danny’s presence and addresses him in her prayers. Her faith encourages her to see her resilience in the face of abuse as evidence that she has God’s protection and, therefore, must be doing God’s work.
Melba knows that segregation does not have to define life in the South. Her trip to Cincinnati to visit her Uncle Clancey and Aunt Julie shows her that it is possible for black and white people to co-exist peacefully. She also notices that she and other members of the Little Rock Nine are making inroads among some white students at Central High. Some of the white kids smile at Melba or quietly direct her to the proper page in a textbook during class. Melba uses these examples of small gestures of kindness to demonstrate that, for many black people, integration is simply a matter of being treated with human dignity—a basic level of respect that whites take for granted.
However, this understanding of respect is lost on many segregationists, particularly Sammy Dean Parker, a staunch young segregationist who leads the opposition to the Little Rock Nine. In an interview with The New York Times, Parker acknowledges the position of Melba and the other black students but she fails to understand it, positing that they do not want integration any more than the white students do, and that the NAACP must be paying them to integrate Central High School. This suggestion confounds Melba who wonders “where on earth [Parker] thought there was enough money to pay for such brutal days” as Melba and the other black students were “enduring.” Parker’s misunderstanding of the motivation behind the actions of students like Melba is not only the result of racism, but of a difference in values. Parker wrongly assumes that money is what motivates Melba, when in fact Melba is standing up for the principles of dignity and equality.
In Cincinnati, on the other hand, Melba comes to believe that not all white people are as hateful as those whom she encounters in Little Rock. She “couldn’t stop hoping that integrating Central High School was the first step to making Little Rock just like Cincinnati, Ohio.” In Cincinnati, “the white neighbors who [live] across the street” from her aunt and uncle invite her to dinner and talk with her “about ordinary things.” It is the first time Melba has such an experience, and it teaches her that whites are people just like her—they even use the same “blue linen dinner napkins that Grandma India favored.” Melba delights in being treated like an equal, whether standing side-by-side with the neighbor’s daughter, Cindy, while she buys popcorn at the concession stand of a drive-in movie theater, or walking down the street proudly without having to step aside for a white pedestrian.
Melba’s account of her experiences in both Little Rock and Cincinnati help the reader to understand that the purpose of integration was to reject Jim Crow statutes which had legalized substandard living for black people in the South and permitted routine disrespect and threats to their existences. Whites enjoyed great economic and political privilege, which rested on the premise that black people should have little to none. For Melba, integrating Central High School is the first step in dismantling the demeaning system that she learned to endure from birth as the norm.
Racism and Living Under Jim Crow ThemeTracker
Racism and Living Under Jim Crow Quotes in Warriors Don’t Cry
My grandmother India always said God had pointed a finger at our family, asking for just a bit more discipline, more praying, and more hard work because he had blessed us with good health and good brains. My mother was one of the first few blacks to integrate the University of Arkansas, graduating in 1954. Three years later, when Grandma discovered I would be one of the first blacks to attend Central High School, she said the nightmare that had surrounded my birth was proof positive that destiny had assigned me a special task.
Black folks aren’t born expecting segregation, prepared from day one to follow its confining rules. Nobody presents you with a handbook when you’re teething and says, “Here’s how you must behave as a second-class citizen.” Instead, the humiliating expectations and traditions of segregation creep over you, slowly stealing a teaspoonful of your self-esteem each day.
With the passage of time, I became increasingly aware of how all of the adults around me were living with constant fear and apprehension. It felt as though we always had a white foot pressed against the back of our necks. I was feeling more and more vulnerable as I watched them continually struggle to solve the mystery of what white folks expected of them. They behaved as though it were an awful sin to overlook even one of those unspoken rules and step out of “their place,” to cross some invisible line. And yet lots of discussions in my household were about how to cross that line, when to cross that line, and who could cross that line without getting hurt.
I crept forward, and then I saw him—a big white man, even taller than my father, broad and huge, like a wrestler. He was coming toward me fast [….] My heart was racing almost as fast as my feet. I couldn’t hear anything except for the sound of my saddle shoes pounding the ground and the thud of his feet close behind me. That’s when he started talking about “niggers” wanting to go to school with his children and how he wasn’t going to stand for it. My cries for help drowned out the sound of his words, but he laughed and said it was no use because nobody would hear me.
For me, Cincinnati was the promised land. After a few days there, I lost that Little Rock feeling of being choked and kept in “my place” by white people. I felt free, as though I could soar above the clouds. I was both frightened and excited when the white neighbors who lived across the street invited me for dinner. It was the first time white people had ever wanted to eat with me or talk to me about ordinary things. Over the dinner table, I found out they were people just like me. They used the same blue linen dinner napkins that Grandma India favored. They treated me like an equal, like I belonged with them.
I ran to my room and fell onto the bed, burying my face in the pillow to hide the sobs that wrenched my insides. All my disappointment over not getting into Central High and the mob chase as well as the big sudden changes in my life over the past few weeks came crashing in on me. Then I heard Grandma India padding across the room and felt the weight of her body shift the plane of the mattress as she sat down. “You had a good cry, girl?” Her voice was sympathetic but one sliver away from being angry [….] “You’ll make this your last cry. You’re a warrior on the battlefield of the Lord. God’s warriors don’t cry, ‘cause they trust that he’s always by their side. The women of this family don’t break down in the face of trouble. We act with courage, and with God’s help, we ship trouble right on out.”
It’s Thursday, September 26, 1957. Now I have a bodyguard. I know very well that the President didn’t send those soldiers just to protect me but to show support for an idea—the idea that a governor can’t ignore federal laws. Still, I feel specially cared about because the guard is there. If he wasn’t there, I’d hear more of the voices of those people who say I’m a nigger […] that I’m not valuable, that I have no right to be alive [….] Thank you, Danny.
“Look out, Melba, now!” Danny’s voice was so loud that I flinched. “Get down!” he shouted again as what appeared to be a flaming stick of dynamite whizzed past and landed on the stair just below me. Danny pushed me aside as he stamped out the flame and grabbed it up. At breakneck speed he dashed down the stairs and handed the stick to another soldier, who sped away. Stunned by what I had seen, I backed into the shadow on the landing, too shocked to move. “You don’t have time to stop. Move out, girl.” Danny’s voice sounded cold and uncaring. I supposed that’s what it meant to be a soldier—to survive.
“You’ve gotta learn to defend yourself. You kids should have been given some training in self-defense.” “Too late now,” I said. “It’s never too late. It takes a warrior to fight a battle and survive. This here is a battle if I’ve ever seen one.” I thought about what Danny had said as we walked to the principal’s office to prepare to leave school. I knew for certain something would have to change if I were going to stay in that school. Either the students would have to change the way they behaved, or I would have to devise a better plan to protect myself. My body was wearing out real fast.
A girl smiled at me today, another gave me directions, still another boy whispered the page I should turn to in our textbook. This is going to work. It will take a lot more patience and more strength from me, but it’s going to work. It takes more time than I thought. But we’re going to have integration in Little Rock.
Later in The New York Times, Sammy Dean Parker and Kaye Bacon said that as a result of the meeting they now had a new attitude. One headline in the Gazette read: “Two Pupils Tell of Change in Attitude on Segregation.” Sammy Dean Parker was quoted as saying, “The Negro Students don’t want to go to school with us any more than we want to go with them. If you really talk with them, you see their side of it. I think the NAACP is paying them to go.” When I read her statement, I realized Sammy hadn’t understood at all our reason for attending Central High. I wondered where on earth she thought there was enough money to pay for such brutal days as I was enduring [….] What price could anyone set for the joy and laughter and peace of mind I had given up?
As I stepped into the hallway, just for an instant the thought of fewer troops terrified me. But the warrior inside me squared my shoulders and put my mind on alert to do whatever was necessary to survive. I tried hard to remember everything Danny had taught me. I discovered I wasn’t frightened in the old way anymore. Instead, I felt my body muscles turn steely and my mind strain to focus […]. A new voice in my head spoke to me with military-like discipline: Discover ink sprayed on the contents of your locker—don’t fret about it, deal with it. Get another locker assigned, find new books, get going—don’t waste time brooding or taking the hurt so deep inside. Kicked in the shin, tripped on the marble floor—assess the damage and do whatever is necessary to remain mobile. Move out! Warriors keep moving. They don’t stop to lick their wounds or cry.
As Minnijean and I spent time together that evening, I could tell she was beginning to be deeply affected by what was being done to her at Central High. She seemed especially vulnerable to the isolation we were all struggling to cope with. She had decided she would be accepted by white students if she could just show them how beautifully she sang. She was almost obsessed with finding an opportunity to perform her music on stage [….] Little did we know that even while we were discussing her performing in school programs, the Central High Mother’s League was preparing to make a bigger fuss than ever before to exclude her. But their threats did not stop Minnijean [….] Did she figure they would be enraptured by her performance? I shuddered at the thought of what the students would say or do to her if she made it.
When Mrs. Bates asked, “Do you kids want white meat or dark meat?” I spoke without thinking: “This is an integrated turkey.” The annoyed expression on her face matched the one on Mother’s, letting me know that maybe I should have prepared a speech. The reporters began snickering as they posed a series of questions on turkeys and integration, calling on me by name to answer. My palms began sweating, and my mouth turned dry. I hadn’t meant to put my foot in my mouth. I didn’t want the others to think I was trying to steal the spotlight, but once I had spoken out of turn, “integrated turkey” became the theme. “You’ll live to regret that statement, Melba,” Mother said as we were driving home. I knew she was agonizing over the consequences of my frivolity. She was right. I would suffer.
Sweet sixteen? How could I be turning sweet sixteen in just a few days and be a student at Central High, I thought as I entered the side door of the school […]. I had relished so many dreams of how sweet my sixteenth year would be, and now it had arrived, but I was here in this place. Sixteen had always seemed the magic age that signaled the beginning of freedom, when Mama and Grandma might let loose their hold and let me go out with my friends on pre-dates. But with integration, I was nowhere near being free.
I pretended to become intensely involved in my book. I was reading about Mr. Gandhi’s prison experience and how he quieted his fears and directed his thoughts so that his enemies were never really in charge of him. All at once I was aware that one of my hecklers was coming toward me. “Niggers are stupid, they gotta study real hard, don’t they?” he said in a loud voice. “Thanks for the compliment,” I said, looking at him with the pleasantest expression I could muster so he would believe I wasn’t annoyed. “Study hard now, nigger bitch, but you gotta leave this place sometime, and then we got you.” “Thank you,” I said again, a mask of fake cheer on my face. He seemed astonished as he slowly started to back away. I felt myself smiling inside. As Grandma India said, turning the other cheek could be difficult […] it was also beginning to be a lot of fun.
Meanwhile Mrs. Huckaby, the woman I considered to be somewhat near fair and rational about the whole situation, had lapsed back into her attitude of trying to convince me there was nothing going on […]. I was seeing things; was I being too sensitive; did I have specific details? When she stopped behaving in a reasonable way, she took away the only point of reference I had […]. I supposed that she must be under an enormous weight and doing her best […]. But once again I had to accept the fact that I shouldn’t be wasting my time or energy hoping anyone would listen to my reports. I was on my own.
Early on Wednesday morning, I built a fire in the metal trash barrel in the backyard, fueled by my school papers. Grandma said it would be healing to write and destroy all the names of people I disliked at Central High: teachers, students, anyone who I thought had wronged me […]. Grandma India stood silent by my side as I fed the flame and spoke their names and forgave them […]. Finally she said, “Later, you’ll be grateful for the courage it built inside you and for the blessing it will bring.” Grateful, I thought. Never. How could I be grateful for being at Central High? But I knew she was always right.
In 1962, when I had attended the mostly white San Francisco State University for two years, I found myself living among an enclave of students where I was the only person of color. I was doing it again integrating a previously all-white residence house, even though I had other options. I had been taken there as a guest, and someone said the only blacks allowed there were cooks. So, of course, I made application and donned my warrior garb because it reminded me of the forbidden fences of segregation in Little Rock.