February 15, 2022

Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals Addresses AHA Via Virtual Visit

Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals, a noted journalist and educator, addressed the Academy of the Holy Angels on February 9. Sixty-five years ago, Beals gained worldwide attention as one of the Little Rock Nine, the nine black teenagers who were chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.


AHA Principal Jean Miller introduced Beals. Miller discovered Beals’ moving memoir, “Warriors Don’t Cry,” while working toward her diversity and inclusion certification at Cornell. Miller contacted Beals to discuss the impact of her book, and invited her to speak at the Academy. The English department, headed by Nancy Schneberger, responded by assigning all or part of the book so students could prepare for Beals’ visit.


Beals made her virtual visit during Black History Month, which she succinctly described as a celebration of the fight for equality.


“You have to keep fighting for your liberty,” she said, adding that liberty is not gifted to us forever.


She distilled liberty and equality into the elements of voice, choice, and inclusion. Voice, she said, is having the ability to speak up if you’re unhappy. Choice involves the ability to make decisions, such as where you live. The third element is whether you are included.


Beals was seeking inclusion when she expressed an interest in attending Central High School after the Brown v Board of Education decision. In this landmark 1954 case, the Supreme Court ruled that state laws that established racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional.


Beals explained that she saw that students who attended Central High School had access to equipment that was not available at her school, and Central High School graduates continued their education at some of the nation’s best colleges.

She described how she grew up with Jim Crow laws that prevented her from riding the merry-go-round, swimming in the local pool, touching merchandise in stores, and using easily accessible and properly maintained drinking fountains and restrooms.


“Warriors Don’t Cry,” which she wrote based on newspaper clippings and her own diary, details constant, life-threatening harassment from students and adults. The school building was intimidatingly large, and the Little Rock Nine were vastly outnumbered by white students.


President Dwight Eisenhower called in the 101st Airborne to contain protesters outside the school and allow the black students to enter the building. Each of the nine had a personal bodyguard. Beals’ guard, “Danny,” saved her sight by flushing her eyes in a water fountain after an attacker sprayed acid in her face.


The nine students, Beals said, were told, “No matter what happens, you can’t hit back.” Beals decided to respond by smiling and saying kind words to her attackers. She said she continues to use this approach, adding that it’s not necessary to join in other people’s anger.


She described meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., noting his calmness and confidence. When she told him about her troubles at Central High School, she was not prepared for his response. Beals recalled that King told her she was not undergoing the experience for herself, but for generations that had yet to be born. 


Although she recognized that she was opening a pathway for others, Beals said attending Central High was frightening. At first, multiple black students signed up for the opportunity to attend the school, but the final group dwindled to nine due to threats and harassment.


Beals ultimately graduated from Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, California. She received a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University and a master’s in education from Columbia. She earned her doctoral degree in education from the University of San Francisco. She began her career in journalism at 17 and worked as a reporter for NBC. She later taught journalism and worked as a communications consultant. She is the author of multiple books. Beals has received the Congressional Gold Medal and the Spingarn Medal for her outstanding accomplishments.


Several AHA students asked Beals questions, including what she thinks about recent efforts to ban books. Beals responded that it’s important to read as a way to get to know and understand people.


She told the students that she found her strength, and that same strength is inside them.


“We really are all one,” Beals said.


Founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1879, the Academy of the Holy Angels is the oldest private girls’ school in Bergen County. While AHA is steeped in Catholic tradition, this prestigious school serves young women from many cultural and religious backgrounds.