Too often students read history as if it were a series of still photographs, with captions of the deals made, the wars fought, the documents signed. In Warriors Don’t Cry, Melba Pattillo Beals walks students into Central High School and makes them feel the sting of physical and emotional abuse the Little Rock Nine suffered as they lived the history of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
This is a well-loved book in Portland Public Schools. It is taught in many of our untracked ninth grade academies that integrate language arts, social studies, and science classes. (It can be taught from middle school on up.) Reading Warriors Don’t Cry creates an opening to examine an important event in U.S. history from a first-person perspective. It allows me to work with students on the intersection between our lives and history, how an individual’s or group’s choices make a difference.
A Historical Framework
Instead of leaping into Beals’ memoir as an unproblematic celebration of Brown, I want to give students a sense of the discussions that might have happened over dinner tables, in barbershops, or at church socials as Little Rock community members argued about integrating Central High School. I wrote a role play so before students began reading the book they could understand how different groups in the city might have responded to integration. I started with the question: Should Central High School be integrated? To be honest, as an English literature major, I was appallingly ignorant about much of U.S. history. However, my lack of knowledge helped me understand the gaps in historical information that students might have. For example, I was surprised that some African Americans did not want to integrate schools for a variety of reasons, including a fundamental distrust in a government that had never taken their well-being into account. I didn’t really know the history of the struggle. I knew the big stuff. I had a basic understanding of the Supreme Court decision and Thurgood Marshall’s role, and I had the visual images of Elizabeth Eckford and the mob; but to teach this book effectively, I needed details. I read, I researched, and I wrote the roles.
Before I begin the role play, I construct a definition of the terms “segregation” and “integration” with students. They divide into small groups and generate their own definitions and examples for the two words. When we come back together as a large group, students share their knowledge. When I first started the unit, I just jumped in, assuming they all knew these key concepts. My omission put students, especially English Language Learners, at a disadvantage before we even opened the book or started the role play.
In the role play the Little Rock School Board asks five groups, who hold a variety of opinions on integration, to make suggestions about how to proceed with desegregating Little Rock’s schools following the Brown decision. Each group has an opportunity to persuade the school board (me) to agree with their resolution and to question their opponents.
After informing students of their responsibilities, I divide them into the five groups: Families of the Little Rock Nine, African Americans Opposing Integration, Governor Faubus, Local Business Owners, and the NAACP. [For a complete copy of the role play, see www.rethinkingschools.org/brown.] Then I give students a menu of resolutions to present to the school board—or the choice to create their own:
- Central High School should be immediately opened up for any African American who wants to attend.
- A handful of African-American honors students may attend Central High School as a test case to determine whether or not integration will work.
- Instead of integrating Central High School, the state should increase funding for a segregated black school, so that “separate but equal” means just that.
- Arkansas should create a voluntary integration program for white and black students at a neutral site—a new school that would iron out the problems and create a map for future integration.
- There should be no integration. Central High School should remain segregated and black-only Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School should also remain segregated.
After discussing the resolutions, students read the roles and discover information about their group’s position that they share with the rest of the class later during presentations and deal-making. For example, the Families of the Little Rock Nine role helps students understand the huge sacrifices these students and their families made because they dreamed for a better future:
Your children have been chosen by the NAACP to integrate Central High School. In fact, they volunteered to integrate and because of their outstanding academic performance, they were the nine students accepted as the first black students to attend Central. All of your families are hard-working, church-going people who expect your children to earn good grades.
While you know that the African-American teachers at Dunbar High School are excellent and have high expectations for your children, you also know that Central High School has the money to offer more classes and newer books. They have well-equipped science laboratories.
But more than that you consider this a strike for the recognition of equal rights for African Americans. As one student chosen to integrate wrote, “I hope that if schools open to my people, I will also get access to other opportunities I have been denied. . . . Our people are stretching out to knock down the fences of segregation. . . . I read in the newspaper that one of our people, a woman named Rosa Parks, had refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus. Her willingness to be arrested rather than give in one more time led to the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. I felt such a surge of pride when I thought about how my people had banded together to force a change.”
In addition, you understand that the segregation laws that keep blacks and whites separate and unequal must be broken. You and your children know that they are the intellectual equals to the white students who attend the school. There is no reason except racism for black students to attend poorly funded schools.
It may be rough going for a while, but nothing in life comes easy. In the long run, the sacrifices of your families will benefit all African Americans and the country as a whole.
The roles also alert students to the social issues and pressures at work in Little Rock. The African Americans Opposing Integration role raises issues of funding and violence, but also questions whether white teachers at Central will have black students’ interests at heart:
Let’s get one thing straight: You are opposed to segregation and to the Jim Crow laws—written and unwritten—that keep African Americans from gaining true equal rights under the law.
But you aren’t sure that putting your children in a school with white children is going to make them better educated. Dunbar Senior High School is the only high school for blacks in Little Rock. Students come from throughout the state to attend Dunbar in order to get what many consider the best education. Dunbar is known for its remarkable student body and faculty. You know these teachers have your children’s best interest at heart.
You worry that if integration is successful, it will ultimately lead to the defunding of Dunbar High School because white students will not transfer to black schools. As enrollment decreases, outstanding black teachers may lose their jobs. They will most likely not be hired at Central High School.
You are also concerned about the outbreak of violence that is accompanying integration throughout the South. In 1956, a young African-American woman’s presence on campus set off rioting at the University of Alabama and the university’s authorities forced her to withdraw.
In the past, the jobs, the homes, and the lives of African Americans have been at stake when big changes have been proposed. You see the handwriting on the wall: Those who attempt to integrate are going to be the targets of segregationists. You want change, but you are unwilling to sacrifice your children.
After students read over their roles, they write interior monologues—thoughts and feelings from their characters’ points of view. I encourage students to create identities—name themselves, name their children. A small business owner, for example, might name her business and tell a little about it. The more they inhabit the role, the more effectively they will be able to participate in the role play from their group’s standpoint.
I’ve discovered that writing helps students get into the heads of historical characters, to imagine the hopes and fears behind the choices people made. After writing for ten to fifteen minutes, students share their monologues with their group members. This helps clarify their understanding of their groups’ concerns as well as their positions. Alisha, a student in Sandra Childs’ class at Franklin High School in Portland, Ore., wrote:
My name is Cyd. I’m 32. I’m a single mother and I own a book store. I have two kids, Robert and Ann. They both go to Dunbar Senior High School. I want my children to get the best education they can. I know and trust that my kids will get what they deserve. Integration will only cause trouble. Things will get violent, I know, I’ve heard white kids talk. I’ve heard what they say. I don’t want my kids to get shot. I believe that everything should stay the way it is because nothing good will come of this.
After sharing their interior monologues, each group chooses or creates a resolution to present to the school board. Then they are ready to meet the other groups. I tell them:
Choose half your group as “travelers” who will move to the four other groups and attempt to find allies—people who support your point of view. The more allies you have when you go before the school board, the better chance you have of determining the decision on integrating Central High. You may have to slightly change your resolution to win allies, but you don’t want to change so much that you are no longer consistent with your group’s perspective. Half of your group will stay at “home” and receive visitors and share your perspective and attempt to gain allies as well.
As students try to persuade other stakeholders to support their resolution, they hone their arguments, compromise with their allies, and sniff out their opponents’ perspectives. While students roam the room or entertain guests, I listen in on the groups. If a group member or a group is straying too far from their group’s position, like Governor Faubus immediately opening all Little Rock high schools to blacks, I may intervene. I also stir the pot by pointing out their differences.
After students reconvene in their small groups, they write up a “statement” to be delivered at the school board meeting. In this statement they must identify their group, state their resolution, and use solid reasons to convince the school board. I award points to each speaker: If every member of the group speaks, then each group member earns double credit.
The students and I arrange the room in a circle—or square. Each group sits together with a placard displaying its name—Little Rock Nine, etc. I pound the gavel (or stapler) to open the Little Rock School Board Meeting; I announce the order in which I will hear their testimony; I pair pro and con in my speaking list to encourage spirited debate—for example, Business Owners and NAACP. Before beginning my role as School Board Chair, I encourage students to take notes during each group’s testimony, so they can ask questions and point out flaws in logic or information. If students aren’t pointing out problems with each other’s resolutions, I will ask a question or two to model the process.
At the end of the role play, when students can lay their group’s mask aside, they discuss the choice they think should have been made at the time.
Students rarely choose the historically “accurate” resolution. Typically, at Jefferson, a predominantly black school, students believe that Central High School should be opened up immediately for any African American. Theresa Quinn and Heidi Tolentino, two ninth-grade language arts teachers, use this role play at a predominantly white school across town, where students usually decide that a neutral site should be chosen for voluntary integration.
As students grapple with the issues of segregation, integration, and injustice, argue with their classmates, and give impassioned speeches to convince me, as the head of the school board, of their position, they also learn some key background knowledge that helps them understand Melba’s story better. Perhaps more importantly, they see that there was nothing inevitable about integration.
For example, after participating in the role play, when students begin reading the memoir they understand why Melba’s family is angry that she signed up to integrate Central without telling them. The African Americans Opposed to Integration group talks about the threat of violence that will be aimed at the entire community over integration. They’ve witnessed the violence aimed at blacks in other states who attempted to integrate buses and lunch counters. So students understand Melba’s family’s reaction when she writes in Warriors Don’t Cry:
We all stood like statues as the newsman talked about Little Rock’s segregationists, who were determined to stop our children from entering white schools at any cost … By then Mother was pale, her lips drawn tight as she glared at me. All of them circled around me. With horrified expressions they looked at me as though I had lied or sassed Grandma. . . . When had I planned on telling them? Why did I sign my name to the paper saying I lived near Central and wanted to go, without asking their permission? Did I consider that my decision might endanger our family?
Throughout the book, Melba shows readers both the economic hardship and the violence wreaked on the black community because of the Supreme Court decision.
Governor Faubus’ threat in the role play to bring in the National Guard to stop integration turns into a visual image as students read Melba’s account of watching Elizabeth Eckford trying to enter Central High School that first day:
The anger of that huge crowd was directed toward Elizabeth Eckford as she stood alone, in front of Central High, facing the long line of soldiers, with a huge crowd of white people screeching at her back. Barely five feet tall, Elizabeth cradled her books in her arms as she desperately searched for the right place to enter. Soldiers in uniforms and helmets, cradling their rifles, towered over her. Slowly she walked first to one and then another opening in their line. Each time she approached, the soldiers closed ranks, shutting her out. As she turned towards us, her eyes hidden by dark glasses, we could see how erect and proud she stood despite the fear she must have been feeling.
By the time we finish the role play, most students are beginning to understand that the narrative behind the still photos of historic moments are filled with complicated choices and heroic actions of ordinary people.
The Tea Party: Discovering Characters
Experienced readers don’t balk at slow beginnings of novels. They are like swimmers who dive into cold water knowing there will be a delicious rush when they burst into a breaststroke or Australian crawl. But inexperienced readers can panic and drown. There are too many names, the location is unfamiliar, they don’t see the point. They give up too soon—before the writer has grabbed them. That’s why I start most books with a literary tea party to entice poor readers into texts. The tea party is like a movie preview—presenting brief clips of the story line and characters to draw the audience in.
Although it may seem redundant to use both a role play and a tea party prior to reading this book, these activities cover different territory. The role play provides historical background information. The tea party introduces the characters in the book. Warriors Don’t Cry is not difficult to read, but some students struggle with it because it deals with difficult and painful content—racism. I use the tea party with this memoir, because meeting some of the characters (like Danny, Daisy, and Link) who act as allies to Melba gives students hope as they read and discuss Melba’s encounters with students at Central High School—students who spit on her, call her names, throw acid on her, and push her down on glass—not to mention the teachers who allow it to happen and the parents who fought to keep her out.
On the day of the tea party, I typically bring a tablecloth, basket of tea bags or hot chocolate, pots of hot water, and a fancy tray of cookies to class. (On overwhelming days, I pick up doughnuts and juice at the store, and when I’m broke, I don’t bring anything.) Before students get to eat and drink, they have to become one of five characters in the book: Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine; Daisy Bates, a member of the Little Rock NAACP; Grandma India, Melba’s maternal, gun-toting, Bible-thumping grandma; Danny, a soldier in the 101st Airborne; or Link, a white senior at Central High School.
I write the roles in the first person from the character’s point of view to create intrigue and questions, as well as to familiarize students with the characters before they begin reading. Grandma India’s role, for example, gives students a sense of her feistiness as well as her connection to Melba:
You are going to love me. I am a tough love kind of Grandma. You might find me sitting in a rocking chair, but instead of knitting and crocheting, you’ll find me with my rifle on my lap. My grandbaby Melba is integrating that high school to make things better for African Americans, but as Frederick Douglass said, “Freedom does not come without a struggle.” No one is going to make this easy. So I’ve got my gun ready in case anyone plans on messing with us. I am highly religious, but I am highly practical as well. Don’t mess with my grandbaby.
I color code the character cards for easy identification. Melba is blue, Daisy is yellow, etc., so when students greet each other, they know which characters to approach. After students read their cards, I ask them to write key facts about their character as well as any questions or thoughts that come up as they read their role sheet. Depending on the skill and age level of the class, I sometimes put them in character groups—for example, all of the Melbas together—to rehearse their roles before going out to meet other characters. I encourage them to bring in information from the Brown role play, but I remind them to stick to the facts on their cards. My very playful students sometimes invent details to spice up their roles.
Prior to the tea party, I demonstrate how to “become the character.” I ham it up. “Hi, I’m Melba Pattillo Beals. I’m a high school student and I’m worried about integrating Central High School. …” As students begin the tea party, I tell them, “Your goal is to meet four other characters from the autobiography. Find out as much as you can about each character and write down key facts. Do not read each other’s cards. You must introduce yourselves. Talk. You can’t sit down and yell for other characters to come to you. You must mingle. This is a tea party.”
Once students have met the four other characters in the book, I ask them to return to their seats and debrief on paper:
- List the characters you meet and write what you learned about those characters.
- Write four questions about the autobiography or the characters.
- Make three predictions about what might happen.
- Draw a picture or diagram that demonstrates the relationship between the characters.
I begin the large group debriefing by asking, “Who was at the tea party?” This question usually elicits names of characters, so I encourage them to give me details—relationships, age, and interesting facts. Then we talk about their questions and predictions. I often write these on the blackboard or overhead so we can return to them as we read the book. Typically, I circle while students are writing and select a few to put their picture or diagram of the relationships on the board, so we can talk about them as a group. Mostly, I want students to begin the book with a sense that Melba is the main character, but the others play important roles in her story.
At this point, depending on how much time is left in the class period, I either pass out the novel so students can read quietly on their own; I read chapter one out loud as students follow along; or I pass out a sample of a dialogue journal and the class practices reading and keeping a dialogue journal together on the first chapter.
Keeping Track of Allies
Once we begin reading the book, I divide students into ongoing study circles that will work together almost every day, reading and discussing the book. I ask each student to keep a dialogue journal, a reading response log, as they read, keeping track of the following information for every two chapters they read:
- Write two questions to discuss with your peers.
- Write two “ahas”—surprises or new knowledge.
- Find two passages you would like to discuss with your peers.
- Keep track of of the behavior of allies (people who stand up for others).
After students meet in their study circles, each group posts one or two questions and the page numbers and first lines of their passages on the board. The class chooses one, and we begin the large class talk. In an untracked class, this strategy keeps less-skilled readers involved in the conversation. Once they’ve rehearsed and reread in the small group, they are ready to jump into a discussion—and they’re usually ready to argue. For reluctant readers, it pulls them back into the novel because they like being part of the class debates.
Because the book is written about Melba’s high school experience, it hits close to home for students. They wonder how she kept going. And while they admire Grandma India, they think it’s unfair when Melba isn’t allowed to attend the school’s wrestling matches. They feel her pain when her friends don’t attend her birthday party, and they applaud Minnie Jean for dumping chili on the boys who harassed her. They discuss the horrors that the students faced—the mobs, the daily acts of violence—and wonder why the Little Rock Nine persevered. While students applaud Melba’s courage, they are clear they wouldn’t make the sacrifices she made. This conversation opens the door for us to talk about how Melba and her family see her actions as a part of a collective struggle for African Americans, not just an act for Melba’s self improvement.
We have worthwhile discussions about allies: Was Link really an ally? He helped her to safety, but he never renounced his friends’ activities. When Minnie Jean wanted to sing, were the rest of the Little Rock Nine allies to her? And what about the teachers in the school? Who made the classroom safe? Who didn’t? These discussions lead us from Melba’s school experience to our experiences, which help prepare students for the final project on the book. [See “Acting for Justice,” page 48.]
Every time I reread Warriors Don’t Cry, I ache for the young girl who believed so passionately that the United States government was going to step up and do the right thing. Melba’s story is heartbreaking and triumphant at the same time.
Although this autobiography de-scribes her battle to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School almost 50 years ago, the story reverberates with today’s youth because the central themes of race and injustice in education still haven’t been adequately fixed.
For the full text of the roles and other teaching materials for the Warriors Don’t Cry unit, see www.rethinkingschools.org/brown.