Melba Pattillo Beals
Photo by Brandon Davis
Back in May 13, 1955, a young Melba Pattillo Beals volunteered for a chance to go to a better school. However, Beals quickly learned that some in her community were not ready to give her that chance. Not only was she spat upon, pushed and shoved, but she had acid poured into her eyes. In her first year at Central High the governor of her state, Orval Faubus, ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block her entry (and eight others’) to school.
The Little Rock Nine, as these students have been labeled by history, took the brunt of racial hatred back in 1957. They made it through the school year with the help of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 101st Airborne Division, personal bodyguards (Melba’s was named Danny) and the bravery of reporters at the time, who spent nights with these children’s families ready to shine the light on any after-dark attacks. After a year, she and her eight counterparts were quietly disbanded. To escape the threats of segregationists, Beals was relocated to California—a place she dreamed of living as a child. The McCabes, a white Quaker family in Sonoma, adopted her. “My dad, Dr. George McCabe, helped to found Sonoma State University and my mom, Kay McCabe, was an incredible civil rights marcher and protester,” she says. “I immediately fell in love with them.” She credits their support for her success as a reporter, author and academic. Why does this nationally revered symbol of change and progress call Marin County home? Read on.
You could live anywhere. Why Marin? Because of the eye candy. Often I say, “Sausalito is where God sends people when space runs out in heaven.”
Do your children understand your place in history? My adult daughter understands. But for the most part my boys think of me as Mom the money machine who gives out allowances, or the smother mother who requires them to follow the rules. However, the other day a national CBS TV show was shooting an interview at my home. My boys walked into the room and you could see them think, “Oh yes, that’s who she is.” They have never lived through an era of oppression as grave as mine. So, they don’t get it.
What makes you happy in Marin? My work teaching at Dominican. While I have been offered teaching positions at some of the country’s most prestigious universities, I prefer to remain here, where we are small enough that we get to know everyone’s name.
What bothers you here in Marin? Perhaps I’m jealous! I see all those beautiful people in Sausalito and Tiburon sitting outdoors in the sun, eating and relaxing and I want to ask them, “Why are you there and who do you work for? Or, do you work?” Sometimes I want to be one of those people. Quite honestly, it is hard to be too bothered when you are in Marin. It is so beautiful here.
What is your personal idea of luxury? A day at home in my furry slippers where I get to write and watch soaps and then go to Il Fornaio for dinner, preferably a seat near the fireplace on a blustery evening.
What person has influenced you the most? My mother was great about insisting I focus on my own education. She would say never, never stop learning. You’re going to get older anyway, so you might as well be old with a few doctorate degrees stashed in your head. She used to say “Education, that’s the key to everything.” I have had the privilege to meet many wonderful people, first as a child and then later as a journalist, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I will never forget his humility and the time he took with us (the Little Rock Nine) to look each one of us in the eye. His insistence that he connect with us on a human level impressed me.
How do you want to be remembered? As a good mother, and as a child of God who struggles hard daily to qualify. I also would like to be remembered as someone who was kind and friendly and who merely wanted what was due to her: equality and the right to be the best I can be.
Did your experience as one of the Little Rock Nine inspired your career? In some ways I was always a writer. However, without a doubt, the fact that there were journalists observing me during the time I was risking life and limb to get into the high school inspired me to become a one myself. When a journalist observes what is going on they almost always alter the course of the action. It is difficult for even the most violent idiot to beat or hang someone when the cameras are clicking or rolling. I came to experience that as long as journalists were around, I was safe. That realization began my own interest in becoming one.
What did your mother teach you about motherhood? My mother always listened to me – she appeared to be interested in what I had to say. So, that gave me a feeling of importance to think that she thought my opinion valuable. I always try to listen to my boys and spend regular, scheduled time with them. My twin boys are 18. Teenagers don’t really want to spend time with you when they begin to mature, to want to explore the world and often they will do anything to get out of it. But I have always scheduled time with them, even now they must be home Sunday evening for dinner and I try and do two meals during the week. I don’t allow them to drive. It’s all about that shuffling back and forth that allows some time with them. As they were growing up, I read three or four stories a night. These days I still make it a point to sit down and talk with them at bed time whenever they come home before I retire.