Most books I read come to me second-hand and serendipitously. Warriors Don’t Cry spoke to me last weekend from a shelf at the Goodwill. I thought it would be about the Maori—I remembered a movie with a similar title. It was instead a gripping first-person account by one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Central High School in 1957. Melba Petillo Beals recounts the constant threats and insults that made her dream of attending this prestigious high school a nightmare she had to steel herself against daily. Only faith in God and the unyielding support of her mother, grandmother, and brother, got her through what was surely the most miserable year of her life.
Beautiful, smart, and articulate, Petillo Beals would have been a star student if she had been allowed to participate—or even to focus on her studies instead of fending off thrown pencils, eggs, attempted rapes, and stabbings. Although one member of the 101st Army, placed in the school at the request of President Eisenhower, kept an eye on her and taught her something of being a warrior, the Arkansas National Guardsmen ignored the assaults, and the school administrators were too timid to do anything but dismiss her complaints.
Fortunately, a white student, aptly named “Link,” helped her, warning her of places and people to avoid—segregationists became more and more agitated as the school year went on and were on a murderous path—and she and seven of the original nine survived the year (one transferred to a northern school).
The most famous picture of the event was probably that of Elizabeth Eckford (right) being harassed by screaming adults who surrounded her and threatened to lynch her. A sympathetic white woman led Elizabeth away to safety. This white woman, like Link, are reminders of the critical role bystanders play when wrongs are being committed. We often forget in disputes that third-party players have a role, too. It’s not enough not to be bad.