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It was a muggy, steamy August night, the kind that forced people like us living in Little Rock, Arkansas, to leave our windows open if we wanted to breathe. But for my family and me it was different. We were concerned about much more than breathing — we were trying to save our lives — racing from room to room, slamming our windows shut and locking them as fast as we could. We were frightened out of our wits by the men banging on our front door and shouting. They said they were gonna get rid of us. My heart was pounding in my ears because I knew it was me they were after. I was only sixteen and not at all ready to die.
"Get that Melba out here right now!" one voice shouted. "Schoolin' with white folks ain't worth starving to death or gettin' skinned alive."
Once again my family was suffering because of my being one of the nine teenagers to integrate the all-white Central High in 1957. Now, as the September 1958 school term was about to begin, I was hoping to return to Central for my senior year. But lots of people — even our own — didn't approve of our going back. The angry men shouting and banging on our porch were serious about their disapproval.
There we stood — Grandma India, Mother Lois, my younger brother Conrad and me — our knees quivering, huddled together in the front hall, next to the rubber tree plant.
"We're locked down good and tight," Grandma said. "Now we wait and pray."
How could they know already that I was home? I had come back from Cleveland only hours before.Besides, I couldn't understand why these men were up in arms. They must not be reading the newspaper. There was little chance that we Negro students would be going back to attend Central High. United States District Judge Harry J. Lemley of Hope, Arkansas, had made a decision two months before, back in June, to suspend integration for two and a half years. The NAACP was filing all sorts of lawsuits to prevent delay, but it appeared we would be tough out of luck. Governor Faubus had vowed he would do whatever was necessary to keep us out. "Little Rock school integration is over forever," he said.
The yelling started again. "We know she's in there. You ain't foolin' us! She's done come back from the North this very afternoon," the deep, angry voice growled once more through the door.
All the fracas started about 9:00 P.M. when we had just laid our heads down and begun hugging our pillows. Awful banging crashed through our sleepy peace and silence. At first we thought it was segregationists come to punish me for wanting to go to school with their children. They had come to our house before, or shot their bullets through our windows late in the night. They had called on the telephone threatening to come and bomb us or take me away. But this time, one voice shouting louder than the others sounded familiar. I struggled to put a name to it. Was it one of my people?
"We ain't waitin' all night for you womenfolk to make up your minds. We gonna ride that girl outta here on a rail before daylight!" The shouts came again.
Beads of perspiration stood on Grandma's upper lip and Mama's forehead. I could hear our panic-stricken breathing over our silent waiting. "Grandma, what's gonna happen to us?" Conrad cried out. I felt really sorry for my younger brother. This kind of terror at night was enough to frighten an eleven-year-old out of his wits, except I noticed Conrad was kind of enjoying it. Every now and then he'd say it was like Hopalong Cassidy fighting off the bad guys. The hallway felt tight and hot. I could feel myself growing desperate for a breath of fresh air. I tugged at the collar of my pajama top to pull it away from my throat.
"Rupert Vogel," Grandma whispered with the excitement of sudden recall. "I'd swear one of those varmints is Rupert."
"Rupert Vogel." I couldn't help repeating his name aloud. He was someone my family had known — a neighbor, a Negro, one of my own people who occasionally helped Grandma India with yard work. He had never behaved this way before.
Once more he shouted. "The white folks is gonna choke the life out of all of us if you all don't keep to our own colored schools."
Grandma picked up a wooden straight-back chair and propped it beneath the knob of the front door. "No telling what he'll do this time," she mumbled.
"This time?" I whispered, as I looked into her huge, almond-shaped eyes for an answer and saw the cloud of sadness there. Avoiding my inquiry, she lowered her gaze to the floor. He must have been taunting them all the while I was up North this summer. While I was being feted with a tour of the White House, attending press conferences and being treated like a star, my folks must have been fending off Rupert.
Since the summer of '57 Grandma had borne up well under the unrelenting phone calls laced with harsh death threats, the shadowy intruders who parked in front of our house and followed us back and forth, and even through the hail of gunshots fired through our window. All this time we, especially Grandma, had let go of counting on any safety even in our own home. But these days I was noticing a difference in her. She neither walked nor talked nor smiled the same. Sometimes she behaved as if she were living in slow motion.
She was tall, strong and queenly in her bearing, but her bright eyes had dimmed just a bit and her smile was not as full. Now, here we were facing more trouble that would no doubt take more out of Grandma.
"We want to talk to your gal eyeball to eyeball, right now!" Mr. Vogel's ear-shattering voice blasted us as he pounded his fist on the door. Or was it a piece of wood he was using? The door rattled on its hinges. Pretty soon, not even the heavy bolt lock, put there by the church members to keep out the Ku Klux Klan night riders who threatened to hang us, could hold the door.
"Don't you fool with me. Now! We want her now!" he insisted. His voice must be echoing through the whole neighborhood. Why didn't anyone come to our rescue? Were all our neighbors against us? A sense of helplessness was taking me over.
It was the same feeling I had during my gut-wrenching year at Central High. Memories were rushing into my head. I tried to push away the horrifying pictures of gun-toting mobs with twisted white faces, their mouths shouting hurtful words; moments inside Central High's halls filled with hateful students spitting at me and calling me "nigger"; the hopeful sight of the 101st Airborne soldiers whisking us past those who would keep us out. Helicopters had roared overhead. The spark of hope brought by the military was dashed, as school officials stood in silence, permitting — sometimes even encouraging — students to harm us. The soldiers had been instructed that they could only intervene in life-threatening situations.
For a few magical weeks of summer, we toured the country — to speak of our experiences before audiences of appreciative people. As I visited up North with those who had gone with me to Central High, I blanketed myself in all the praise, the picture-taking, the news reporters' questions. I had let myself feel safe and normal and pretty during our travels. A reporter in New York described me in a story as pretty, with a dimpled face and a well-developed hourglass figure like a model. Another in Cleveland carried a picture of me on the front page of its Living Section with the headline "The Fox Is in Town."
I had mostly thought of myself as big-boned like my father, taller than most of my friends and not as pretty as Mother Lois. People often mistook her for being Hawaiian or Italian. She was fair and petite with sharp features and long, flowing hair, and I figured I could never measure up to her. Instead, I had Grandma's chocolate complexion, her huge, almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones. Mother would point to me and say, "You're too big-boned, you look like your dad. Thank God you've got my brains and long hair." But with the newspaper compliments, I looked into the mirror and actually smiled back at myself. My hair was long and wavy, my waist was thin and I was full-breasted, which was now in style. Jayne Mansfield's popularity as a movie star had done me a favor.
During that sixteenth summer of mine, when we were on tour, I was once again giggling aloud and thinking about the things other teenagers thought about, like Johnny Mathis's songs, dancing with boys and having all the clothes on the pages of Seventeen magazine. But now I was back in Little Rock and right back in the middle of the integration storm. My happy thoughts vanished, replaced by worrying about survival, just finding comfort and safety for me and my family. A cold fist tightened around my stomach.
"Melba, girl, do you hear me talking to you? Help me move this hutch to block the front door." Grandma India's voice brought me back into our current crisis. Mr. Vogel's shouting voice spewed garbled words as Grandma strained to be heard over his yelling. "Quickly now," she commanded.
Each of us squared off to take a corner of the heavy old relic. Grandma India was Mother Lois's mother, but she was tall and big-boned, like me. So even though Mother Lois and Conrad would make an effort, it was really Grandma India and I who would bear most of the weight. On the count of three, we hoisted the hutch and with a mighty effort we lifted the monstrosity toward the front door. After only a few steps, we had to stop and set the piece down. Perspiration dripped down Grandma's face. I wiped away the drops trickling down my own temples.
"If you all don't open this door, we're gonna kick it in." Rupert Vogel's shouts speeded our struggle to move the clunky, unbearably heavy piece. "Let's just push it," Grandma India ordered. In unison, we each drew a deep breath and shoved the hutch into place. Still panting, Grandma whispered, "Even if he breaks the lock, this will give us time to escape out the back way."
This was one of many times when I wished my father and mother had not divorced. If Papa Will was with us those menfolk wouldn't treat us like this. My father was well known in our community. He was six feet four inches, and his muscular good looks, cocoa brown skin, huge dark eyes, dimples and curly hair made some of Mother's women friends refer to their divorce as her loss. Tonight, his absence was indeed our loss. If he was here he would have sent those men running in an instant.
"Oh my goodness," Mother Lois grimaced with fear. I thought to myself that it must be these repeated incidents that were putting lines in her beautiful forehead. "Listen! Footsteps," she whispered. "Many more voices and footsteps. Who can we call for help?" We knew the police wouldn't respond to a Negro's call for aid.
Frozen in my tracks, I strained to hear. Had more men come to join those taunting us? Now they would have the strength to break down the door and even get past the hutch. Panic-stricken expressions on the faces of Mother and Grandmother reflected what I felt inside. Nobody moved. Outside, footsteps scrambled and quickened. Voices tried to shout over each other — and then there was a lull in the activity. We dared not even draw a breath.
"Are you all all right in there, ladies?" It was Pastor Nelson from down the street. He must have heard the ruckus and come to help us.
"Praise God," Mother whispered as we all moved closer to the door.
"Oh Lord, we don't deserve your sweet love," Grandma sang gleefully. "Do you hear? The Lord has sent his messenger to rescue us."
A shadow lifted from Mother Lois's face as she spoke softly, "And it sounds like Deacon Wilder and Elder Lloyd."
"Don't open the door, ladies. We don't want to disturb you any more. We just happened to be holding prayer meeting at my house this evening when we heard the commotion. We're gonna hold a moment of prayer with the rambunctious gentlemen who came a-calling, if that's all right with you." The minister spoke in a take-charge voice.
We bowed our heads and listened in silence as the church men first chided Mr. Vogel and whoever was with him for disturbing womenfolk. Then the minister led them in a prayer asking for forgiveness for their sins.
"You ladies have a good night now," the reverend yelled to us as we listened to footsteps scuffling down the front steps.
"Thank you so much — thank you." We all spoke at once and then drew a collective sigh of relief and turned to force a smile at one another.
"I'll bet that Rupert guy was the one who put the pipe bomb under Mother's car," Conrad said. Pipe bomb! What was he talking about?
"Ah ah ah ..." Mother Lois cautioned him.
"You hush your mouth right now, boy," Grandma India said, "and use your strength to help move the chest back to its place." Grandma turned to click off the porch light as she began humming a tune in order to pretend that nothing unusual had happened.
"Pipe bomb?" I couldn't believe my ears. "Pipe bomb — when?"
"Well, Rupert could'a been the one," Conrad said, as once again we prepared to lift the hutch. Suddenly Grandma India signaled us to halt.
"You don't need to speak the devil's piece, boy," Grandma said, as her smile faded with a deepening furrow of her brow.
"Mama was so scared. We almost didn't see it, but we smelled something awful and then ..." Conrad pressed on with his story as if compelled to do so despite the adults' objections. He just couldn't keep quiet.
"If you can't keep your mouth shut, boy ... Tell you what — we'll let the hutch rest here for the night and take care of it with the morning's strength. Good night all," Grandma said suddenly, and then she pointed at Conrad. "You get on your knees and say your prayers before you get in bed. And ask God to seal your mouth."
"I'm not sleepy," Conrad complained.
"I wanna know about the pipe bomb," I pleaded.
"Well, last week, uh, Thursday ... It wasn't big. The police came. Daddy was really angry and ..." As Conrad continued to explain, his face lit up and his breathless words spilled out even faster. But all of a sudden, Grandma India interrupted him with her no-nonsense voice.
"It was just a bunch of folks acting crazy. No need to give it any more thought. Sweet dreams." She snatched my brother's arm and dragged him toward his bedroom.
I was glad that my little brother spoke up, despite Grandma's objections. I needed to know, even though I couldn't bear the thought of my family suffering because of me.
Back in bed for the night, I snuggled beneath the dutch-girl quilt Grandma had sewn for me. Although my room was as hot as a wood-burning furnace, I pulled the quilt over my head, wishing it could fend off the outside world. But as I lay quiet, I couldn't push back the gushing memories forcing their way into my mind, spilling more pictures of the past that I longed to forget.
I tossed and turned for hours as I relived that incredible September day the year before when I and the eight others tried to enter Central High for the first time. Mother and I were stunned by the angry mob that greeted us as we approached the school. Throngs of white people were shouting, waving their fists, bumping and crowding into each other and into us as we stood directly in front of the school. We had plowed our way through the human sea of rage, trying to link up with the others who would attend Central with me. The plan had been for all of the integrating students to meet at one end of the school and enter together. None of us had discussed the possibility of all these people. It was like a football game or rodeo. Where had they all come from, and what did they want? They seemed more angry than any adults I'd ever seen before.
The angry mass seemed to stretch the entire two-block length of the front of the castle-like building that was Central High. I wondered how we would ever find the other integrating students. How would we connect and get across the street and up those many front stairs into the door of the school? The crowd didn't at all seem ready to let us through.
Suddenly, the voices rose even louder, as if the fire of hate had been stoked and now burned even hotter. Mother Lois and I tried to see what was causing an explosive ruckus nearby. What could possibly be happening that could enrage hundreds of people even more than they already were? And then we saw: My petite schoolmate, Elizabeth Eckford, was across the street from us, standing all alone, surrounded by shouting white people. Soldiers and state police were blocking her repeated attempts to step onto the pathway that led to the front door of Central High.
What was she doing there by herself, separated from us and the others? She must not have gotten word of the appointed meeting place. Dazed and disoriented, Mother and I stood there, our attention riveted on Elizabeth, trying frantically to search for a way to help her. Why weren't the police or the National Guard rescuing her? We realized that we could do nothing, we were helpless.
"We got us a nigger right here!" shouted a red-faced man with a rope slung over his shoulder. He was pointing at Mama and me. That's when we realized that we were in real trouble too. Men, women and children were shouting and gushing about us like the whirling winds of a tornado. We had to save ourselves, but how? We were trapped by human bodies clustered around us, hissing and screeching. In an instant they had made us their prey. They waved sticks and ropes and fists at us as their piercing, outraged voices yelled, "You ain't gonna sit beside our children! You gonna die, nigger, right here, right now, you gonna die."
"Melba, move now, fast," Mother whispered. We were backing away, turning sideways until we hit up against the people forming a barrier behind us. Scowling faces surrounded us so close that they seemed to smother me. Panic rose in my throat as I watched more overall-wearing men moving toward us, their hands groping for the ropes looped over their shoulders and under their arms.
Suddenly, my mother and I sensed the grave danger surrounding us. She urged me to run as fast as I could, but I couldn't leave her. We turned and headed back to the car, desperately trying not to be noticed. One of the men was so close that when he reached out to grab for Mama he tore her blouse, but still I had to stay with my mother, had to disobey her breathless, frantic cries for me to save myself. They chased us through the streets and as we ran I prayed aloud for God's help. Only by the miracle of a fallen branch in the path of our predators, which tripped the leaders of the pack and sent the followers sprawling, did Mother Lois and I reach the safety of our car. I jammed the gears into reverse, racing backward with my foot pressing hard on the gas pedal. And we made it. We got home with our shattered dreams, broken hearts and aching bodies.
After three weeks of waiting behind locked doors and windows in a violent war zone that had once been our home, a federal court ruling decreed that the troops must stop blocking our entry to Central. We hoped and prayed that even the most outraged segregationists would want to obey the law and end this hideous circus. But on our second trip to Central High we encountered the same howling mob outside.
Only a twist of fate got the nine of us past their treacherous gauntlet and into school. At the instant we passed, the mob's eyes and attention were suddenly drawn to news reporters being beaten in the front yard. We scampered undetected into a side door, and into the hallways of Central High. It was a place we and our ancestors had only dreamed of being, but we were really there amid crowds of white students shouting, "The niggers are getting in! Get the niggers!"
I felt as if I was being rushed to the center of a churning tornado where I had no time to admit my fear. I had to keep moving. I made my legs move forward, to outrun the angry insults, to leave behind the menacing crowd, to start my first day at Central High and grasp our hard-won victory.
By noon, our experience as Central High students was abruptly halted. By 11:45 the mob was out of control as it rampaged toward the school. The police said they couldn't protect us anymore. Some were throwing down their badges and joining the mob. Others said they had to get us out in order to save our lives and the lives of other teachers and students inside the school. One of the officers suggested they might have to distract the mob by allowing them to hang one of us while they got the other eight out. For the first time, I realized the crowd could kill me and that some of the group, including police, would let them. But one man prevailed, insisting that he could not live with "killing a child, even a Negro child."
We were spirited out through an underground garage, through the raging mob, with hundreds of hands grabbing at the rolled-up windows of the two Little Rock police cars that ferried us to safety.
Forty-eight hours later, President Eisenhower sent uniformed and armed World War II heroes of the 101st Airborne to stop the mob that would not cease their unlawful rampaging, even at his command. When those starched and armed combat-ready soldiers of the 101st escorted us through the front door of Central High, once more we hoped and prayed that this would be the end to the danger we faced. But it was only the beginning of even more horror than we could have imagined.
The days and weeks turned into months of torture at the hands of our angry and intolerant classmates. The really hostile laid down their unwelcome mat by kicking, spitting and throwing lighted pieces of paper at us. They were organized and tenacious in their physical torture, walking on my heels day after day, calling me unspeakable names, and dousing me with bowls of raw eggs. They had even sprayed acid in my eyes, an incident I survived with my sight only because the 101st soldier who guarded me had the presence of mind to jam my face beneath the water fountain and drench my eyes. And all the while I was trying to do my homework and pretend I wasn't more lonely and frightened than I thought I ever could be.
"Something the matter with you, honey? I heard you call out and then make an odd noise." Grandma India's voice and her soft touch on my cheek interrupted the flow of my nightmare.
"Just a bad dream," I explained. She left only after I promised that I would go to her room if I needed her. My body was wet with perspiration and my heart was still beating fast when I closed my eyes and tried to get back to sleep. I couldn't stop myself from twisting and turning in the covers as I fought to keep from thinking about what had been the most un-Merry Christmas of my life — Christmas of 1957.
By that time I had lived through almost four months of punches to my back and stomach, being tripped up and pushed down flights of stairs, and having acid sprayed in my eyes. My cruel classmates sang "White Christmas" to torment us. I had never felt such unrelenting hatred.
The segregationists urged Central High's student leaders to antagonize and taunt us until we responded in a way what would get us suspended or expelled. The other students tortured us relentlessly, but it was Millijean who got expelled. First, they accused her of intentionally dumping chili on a white boy's head without provocation, and she was suspended. My friends and I witnessed the incident and believe she was indeed provoked. When Minnijean returned to school after her suspension she became their prime target. She was kicked and knocked about repeatedly. Eventually, Minnijean fought back and was expelled. We were now eight integrating students among two thousand.
Meanwhile, day by day we were watching our people's jobs, the food on their tables, their rents, their house payments being wrestled away. All of the parents of those who had integrated were being threatened with losing their jobs. Mother had overcome the first big threat to her job and our security. But we didn't have any assurance that it wouldn't happen again.
Our once-strong community of businesses and church organizations was being attacked one by one, systematically, by segregationists. Both white advertisers and businessmen from our own community were withdrawing their support from our only newspaper, The State Press. The president of the local NAACP, Mrs. Daisy Bates, and her husband were the owners. She had been the target because her home had become one of the headquarters for organizing the integration of Central High. She had been one of the people who escorted us to school on that first day. Her home had been fire-bombed and bricks were tossed through her windows. Now, segregationists were strangling the newspaper her husband had founded. It was our voice, a vehicle for rallying our people.
My own father was against my participation in the integration of Central High. Although Daddy's fearless manner and willingness to serve often led him to defend helpless folks who were being taunted for no reason, now he was the one being taunted. Because of my part in the integration turmoil, he was being beaten down by the constant harassment from the white men on his job. Most of all, he didn't want to lose his position as a hostler's helper with the Missouri Pacific Railroad. Negro men didn't come by those kinds of jobs easily.
Nevertheless, we eight survived the year and even survived our senior member's graduation from Central. Ernest Green risked life and limb, walking alone into the history books as the first of our people to wear the cap and gown and hold the diploma of Central High School.
During the summer of '58 we were labeled heroes and heroines and treated as "stars." Touring in the luxury of long, shiny black limousines and spending our nights in ritzy hotels, we strutted on stages and pranced into crowds of admirers, signing autographs. Only an occasional memory intruded to make me face the pain I tried to shed that summer. There were awards and compliments from my folks, as well as from many whites, and in some cities parades of mostly white people welcomed us. For a time, I had stopped shrinking back and biting my nails when white people moved toward me. I also stopped having nightmares.
But with this night and Mr. Vogel's ugly behavior, I realized those nightmares lay just beneath the surface. Like a panther crouched to strike unsuspecting prey, these memories had once again taken over my mind and body, making me feel as though I had never been away. I turned my face into my pillow and sobbed until dawn's light brought a quiet peace.
I didn't know how to tell my mother that I was beginning to think it would be best for me to give up attending Central High and leave town. How could I tell her what was really in my heart — how weary I felt and how disappointed I was at the thought of giving up my senior year for integration? All through junior high I had thought about what it would be like to become an ordinary, almighty senior with all the privileges and parties and fun involved. If I missed that, how was I ever going to make up for it?
I just wanted to be a normal sixteen-year-old with a date for the senior prom. I wanted to slow dance to Johnny Mathis's romantic songs, or swing to Elvis's "Don't Be Cruel." I wanted to date some cute boy as all my girlfriends looked on with envy. I wanted to giggle and talk about boys all night at a silly pajama party. I wanted to be free to go to the library or walk the halls without being called names. Most of all, I just wanted to feel safe. I wanted angry people to stop focusing their attention on me and causing me pain.
The added burden of knowing that integrating Central was hurting not just my family but so many of our people preyed on my mind. I continued reading the newspaper each day, wondering what would become of all of us. Would we once again be swallowed up by the storm caused by that word "integration," the storm that had taken us over the year before and turned my life into something I no longer recognized? That night I wrote in my diary:
Oh, God, please help me find my way. I don't want to disappoint anyone. Don't I deserve to have a senior year? Can't we have integration but not have me participate? This is such a big problem, only You can figure it out. Thy will be done.
Please — give me courage.
Posted June 10, 2007