By the time she was 3, Melba Pattillo Beals knew the 23rd Psalm and the Lord's Prayer by heart.
"It was the first thing I spoke and the first thing I wrote," Beals said of the 23rd Psalm, which begins, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
Beals, 76, one of the nine who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957, chronicles her life in the context of faith in her new book, I Will Not Fear: My Lifetime of Building Faith Under Fire.
Fear, along with faith, was a part of her childhood.
"If you grew up black in Little Rock, you [couldn't] count on the police, the firemen," Beals said. "Who's going to rescue you? The [Ku Klux] Klan would ride at night and I couldn't call the police. ... Nobody's going to come."
Beals was attending Horace Mann High School in Little Rock when she learned the NAACP had chosen her and eight other students out of hundreds of applicants to desegregate Central High after the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, and the experience became what she called a "primer" for her understanding of faith.
Recounting the events of Sept. 4, 1957, Beals described the moments when men from a crowd of white people advanced on her and her mother with ropes and weapons. Recalling the advice of her grandmother, India Peyton, to call on God, she began to speak aloud the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm.
"I learned a lot about God's expectations of me ... with the [most] important thing I learned starting at Central High School when those men were chasing us with a rope trying to hang us -- that your solutions and your blessings are not going to come always the way you want them to," Beals said. "I thought there'd be some big orchestra choir singing above, but no ... it was a simple branch on the ground.
"I ran around one edge of the branch, my mother ran around the other edge and the men who were chasing us flipped over. So what I've learned a lot about is don't lay out solutions, God has those in mind. He's going to do it his way, not mine. And understand that there are requirements God makes of you."
Beals was on constant alert for her physical safety during her days at Central High.
"It wasn't a question of whether you [were] going to be hurt, it's that it's how," Beals said. "What part of you is going to really be hurt next?"
Each of the Little Rock Nine had a bodyguard assigned to accompany him or her from class to class for their first few months at Central High, and the soldier guarding Beals instructed her on how to stand up straight and walk with intent and confidence, echoing her grandmother's sentiments on keeping aware of her surroundings, and both her grandmother and her bodyguard had implored her to not cry.
"The soldier said, 'This takes all of your energy, to stay alive,'" Beals said. "'You just don't have time to cry here.'
"At the same time my grandmother was home singing this old spiritual which went, 'I am a warrior of the battlefield for my Lord; I will serve until I die and I will not cry.'"
Peyton had imbued in her granddaughter a strong sense of faith and self-confidence that Beals carried through her time at Central High and throughout her life.
"My grandmother was my philosophical guide," Beals said. "She was my heart, my soul. All of my zest for living came from her.
"She [would say], 'God loves you no matter what. Your picture is on God's refrigerator. See, like I have your picture right here on this refrigerator, yours is on his.' "
Peyton died of leukemia just over a year after the Little Rock Nine desegregated Central High, and Beals remained at home while the Little Rock School District opted to close its high schools for the 1958-59 school year rather than continue the desegregation process.
Sent away to live after a series of threatening nighttime phone calls, Beals stayed with the McCabes, a white Quaker family, in Santa Rosa, Calif., and they would become her family. Beals continued school and went on to attend college, marrying and starting a family of her own.
Continually encouraged by her mother -- one of the first black graduates of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville -- Beals earned a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and later attained a doctorate in international multicultural studies while a single parent of a daughter.
Beals started her journalism career as a newscaster at California's TV station KQED, which she notes in I Will Not Fear as being a nurturing, secure environment. She would turn to God again as she experienced discrimination for being a black woman while working at an NBC affiliate station, and whenever she went house or apartment hunting.
Beals recalled what Martin Luther King Jr. had impressed upon her when they met in 1957 -- "You're not doing this for yourself, you're doing this for generations yet unborn" -- and her grandmother's oft-spoken phrase that things happen "in God's time."
The book also takes readers through Beals' time founding and running a public-relations firm, becoming a college professor, through the raising of twin boys she adopted in the 1990s, and with the Little Rock Nine when they received a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.
Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High, was Beals' first memoir. Published in 1994, it has sold more than a million copies, received multiple awards and sent Beals around the country as a public speaker.
Along with I Will Not Fear, Beals also has written about her childhood in a book for a younger audience called March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine, both of which were released in January.
"I want all kids to [see] from the moment of their birth that they are equal ... and not wait for somebody white to confer equality on you," Beals said of her goal in writing March Forward, Girl. "You are already equal when you get out of the bassinet.
"I try to tell kids all the time [that] you're not measured by what you drive or your race, just by your humanity."
Religion on 03/03/2018
Print Headline: No time to cry: 23rd Psalm kept LR Nine’s Melba Pattillo Beals alive