Every Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday in America (except for the state of Arizona), I try to read or listen to something that’ll amplify my appreciation of Dr. King’s mighty contribution to our nation and world.
This year, I happened to be getting into my car just as the popular National Public Radio interview show, Fresh Air, was getting going. The guest was Melba Pattillo Beals, a journalist who, in 1957, had been one of nine African-Americans who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
As I listened to Beals describe the horrors she went through just to try and get a good education, I was deeply shocked and moved. Three years before, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled “Separate but equal is inherently unequal.” The Jim Crow education policies that had been followed in the American South became illegal. With the help of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Beals and eight other teenagers were called upon to be the front line troops in the actual implementation of that ruling.
I’d known that these young people had faced danger, but had never encountered the graphic details of the nightmares they had to live through. Hundreds of angry white people blocked their way into school (for some reason, each of the new students was asked to enter the school alone or with a parent) and shouted racial insults. Red-faced men held out thick ropes tied in hangman’s nooses.
Once the children had finally succeeded in entering the school, a process that took some weeks, they continued to face an environment in which white students were being trained by a branch of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to use shock tactics, such as throwing lighted pieces of paper down on a student in a toilet stall. Beals described how one of her classmates threw acid into her eyes, and only through immediate and thorough rinsing did she avoid being permanently blinded.
By that time, President Dwight Eisenhower had called out the 101st Airborne Division, comprised of soldiers who had been heroes in the Korean War, and the new students had genuine protection, as opposed to the sham protection that the Governor of Arkansas, Orville Faubus, had arranged.
A new, eye-opening book by Pattillo Beals
I’ll never forget what I felt while listening to the details of Beals’ story. In her new book, I Will Not Fear, Melba Patillo Beals recounts not only the “Little Rock Nine” chapter of her life, but the journey of her whole life.
The key to the book is its subtitle: My Story of a Lifetime of Building Faith under Fire. The book is a veritable primer on how to live a life of Spirit under difficult circumstances, which continued for the author long after she left Little Rock for California, where the NAACP finally arranged for her to go after the KKK put out a bounty on the lives of the nine students.
Beals’ role-model was her grandmother, India Annette Peyton, a spiritual warrior if there ever was one. The book begins by describing Peyton’s brave and eventually successful quest to allow Melba’s mother to give birth in a whites-only hospital. This opening story sketches the brutal contours of racial segregation in bold strokes.
As Melba was too big for her tiny mother’s body, the grandmother knew that a birth outside the hospital would likely result in both of their deaths. She begged the white administrators, an act that was completely outside the rules of Jim Crow, until finally one of them gave grudging permission for Melba’s mother to give birth in a hospital broom closet.
Even then, the racist nurses ignored doctors’ orders about bathing the baby in Epsom salts. Little Melba was on the verge of dying, when a janitor friend told the grandma that he’d overheard the doctor prescribing this treatment. Only because India rushed out immediately to buy the product in a retail store did Melba survive.
Grandma Peyton constantly counselled reliance upon God and persistence in your own “spiritual assignment,” with the knowledge that we do things not only for ourselves, but for the many who’ll come after us. In the crucible of Little Rock and elsewhere, the author shares stories that demonstrate how active reliance on God through prayer, in the very moment of danger, can make the difference between life and death.
I’m grateful to Ms. Beals, who has spent most of her adult life as a journalist and professor in the San Francisco Bay Area, for this handbook. It jives with all that I’ve heard from my own spiritual mentors, East and West. Her story reveals, time and again, how her values—grounded in Biblical teachings, but in essence, applicable to any spiritual tradition—can lead a person through to the other side, every time, in the midst of even the most dire circumstances.