Summary: A young adult memoir of Melba Pattillo Beals about her early years before integrating Little Rock’s Central High. March Forward, Girl is a prequel to Warriors Don’t Cry.
Last year I read Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir of her life after Central High, I Will Not Fear. At some point, I read that Beals’ best-known book, the memoir of her Central High desegregation experience, Warriors Don’t Cry, was among the list of books that were being challenged as inappropriate to be taught in schools. So, as I was looking for that book, I also put her most recent book, March Forward, Girl, on my to-read list. I thought March Forward, Girl covered the Central High but was pitched to a younger audience than Warriors Don’t Cry, but it is more of a prequel. I am not great at evaluating what age would be best for reading, but my inclination is that March Forward, Girl is targeted to children that are roughly 10 to 13.
March Forward, Girl was written just a few years ago, and Melba Pattillo Beals is now 80 years old. The book opens with her coming to understand racism as a very young child. Born on December 7, 1941 (the day of the Pearl Harbor attack). Melba, as a child, understood more than what her parents and other adults thought that she did.
It seemed to me that the grownups must have thought they could say anything out loud in front of me and I wouldn’t really understand what they were talking about because I was so little. They were wrong. I took in every word, and I spent all my waking hours listening closely to the adult talk, trying to figure out their words, what they meant, and why they never spoke up, and pondering my world. How did I get here? How long did I have to stay? I imagined there must be places beyond Arkansas where my folks were treated better…Early on, I could tell that the white people in Little Rock believed we had to do whatever they wanted us to do. I told myself that it must be that God liked them better than us. They treated us like they owned us.
While March Forward, Girl was not published by a Christian publisher as I Will Not Fear was, it is still significantly concerned with her theological wrestling of what it means to be enduring pain and racism and to believe in God. Where was God in the midst of her pain? As I read March Forward, Girl, I thought about how Christians who are not paying attention to the world’s problems and working toward their solutions are keeping people from God. Melba Pattillo Beals eventually came to a deep faith in God. But those early years, she struggled to understand her Grandmother’s faith.
A personal memoir like this is a critical way to give context to history. She talks about hating to go to the stores because Black people were not allowed to touch items in most stores. They had to tell the clerk what they wanted, and the White clerk would gather them because items that Black people had touched would not be considered salable to White people. And Black patrons would only be helped if there were no other White people in the store. White people immediately moved to the front of any line, so it may take an hour to get a few items at the grocery store since Black patrons both could not pick up items on their own and had to wait until all White patrons had been served.
The experiences that Melba Pattillo Beals recounts of her childhood are not just inconveniences and or segregated stores and water fountains. She also tells about members of the Klan coming into their church service and lynching a man in the middle of the sanctuary. And of her walking home from the pool one day and being kidnapped by a group of men and taken to a Klan rally where they intended to rape her (she was too young to realize that this was what was being intended.) However, a White woman at the Klan rally eventually realized that she was only 11 but looked older and helped her escape.
It is these more serious examples that I think likely are why some White people are objecting to this memoir and Warriors Don’t Cry. But these events were experienced by a child who is the books’ target age. And I think we do need these first-person accounts, and we need to know that the people that experienced them are still alive. There was a Fresh Air interview from 2018 when the book came out. And an Oprah episode from 1996 brought together several students from Little Rock High forty years later.