Summary: The faith-filled memoir of a woman who rose to fame as one of the Little Rock 9, but who continued throughout her life to work through the ways race has continued to play a role through systems and culture whether or not it was legally mandated.
I have been a bit in a reading slump. There are many ‘important books’ that I want to read, but I don’t have a lot of motivation to actually read them. I don’t want to blame the global pandemic overly, but over the past three months, my kids have been at home more than they have been at school, both because of school vacations, school closures, and quarantining because of covid exposure. My traditional method of resolving reading slumps is to change genres. Fiction or story-based history or biography often is the cure I need to re-invigorate my desire to read again.
I Will Not Fear is a book I picked up years ago when it was on sale but never read. Last fall, I noticed that it was part of Audible Plus (their program of including back catalog books for free as part of membership). But it wasn’t until January that I actually picked the book as a follow-up to the John Lewis biography. Melba Beals is not a household name. But many of us have a rough understanding of the Little Rock Nine, the nine high schoolers that integrated Little Rock Central High School. Initially, the state national guard was deployed by the Governor to block the Black students from the school entrance on the first day. A mob gathered to protest the integration harassed the students. The description of the threatened rape and lynching of the students and Melba and her mother being literally chased through the streets is harrowing.
Eventually, a couple of weeks later, a federal judge ordered the National Guard removed. The students attended school for several hours one day before police escorted the students out because again, an angry mob threatened violence against the students and the school more broadly. Two days later, President Eisenhower, at the Little Rock mayor’s request, ordered the Army’s 101st Airborne to guard the students. They were accompanied in classes and hallways (but not, as described in the book, in the girl’s restrooms where Melba and the other girls were harassed.) The close escorts only lasted a few months, and in the second half of the school year, the students were harassed and bullied without any recourse. This included Melba having acid thrown on her face, an effigy being burned on a vacant lot outside of the school, and several incidents of students being beaten and harmed. One of the nine was expelled for defending himself. And one of the parents was fired from her job with the state of Arkansas for refusing to remove her daughter from the school.
At the end of the school year, Ernest Green graduated, but the remainder of the students were not seniors. In September 1958, the governor ordered all Little Rock public schools closed. There was a public vote, and the citizens voted against integration and kept the schools closed for the full school year. Eventually, Melba moved to California and was hosted by a white family that was a member of the NAACP so that she could complete her high school. She has lived in California until the present day.
As important as the story of the Little Rock Nine is, only a fairly small portion of the book is about that. Most of the book is about the rest of her very full life. This is a story about her life of faith. A Christian publisher published it, and throughout the book, she points to her reliance on God and her faith to guide how he responded to racism and sexism and other issues. She married a white man, and they had a child. After the pregnancy and birth nearly killed her, doctors told her she should not have another child. Her husband’s insistence that she get pregnant again, as well as other conflicts, especially about her desire to work outside of the home, led to a divorce.
As a single mother, she went back and finished college; she got an internship/fellowship to a journalism program and was one of the first Black TV reporters in the country and the first in San Francisco. After several years of being a reporter, she quit to become a writer and to start a PR firm. Eventually, she went back to school, finished a Ph.D., and taught at the college level before retiring relatively recently.
I Will Not Fear is not concentrated on her school integration story because her first book (1995), Warriors Don’t Cry, and the more recent (2019) young-adult-focused March Forward, Girl, focus on that story. I have picked up March Forward, Girl because it is currently on sale for Kindle, and I will try to read that sometime later this year. But I appreciate I Will Not Fear in part because it is so focused on the after part of her famous story. There was trauma and harm that were part of her life that was common to many mid to late 20th century Black Americans. Her long section on the continued overt housing discrimination, not in the 1960s or 70s, but after 2000 when overt housing discrimination had been illegal for nearly 40 years, matters as a story that more White Americans need to read.
And as I commented in my post about John Lewis’ biography, the inclusion of Melba Beals’ faith as essential to her civil rights story is part of what I want to highlight as a reason to read this book. There are many good books on the civil rights and post-civil rights era. Still, these smaller personal stories, especially ones that include processing of the trauma of the work of civil rights as this and While the World Watched does, are very important to read.