Melba Pattillo Beals memorized the Lord’s Prayer by the age of three. The prayer was her lifeline at age 16 when she survived vicious racist attacks as one of Little Rock Nine, the black teens who stepped up to integrate Central High in segregated Arkansas in 1957. Decades later they were each presented with a Congressional Gold Medal for their courage.
Now, at age 76, Beals puts her Christian beliefs forward in a new memoir, I Will Not Fear: My Story of a Lifetime of Building Faith Under Fire (Revel, January). The new book updates her two earlier memoirs—the 1994 award-winning bestseller, Warriors Don’t Cry, about the Little Rock Nine experience, and her 1999 book, White is a State of Mind, on her life with a white Quaker family in California where she completed high school and college.
Last year she published March Forward, Girl, a young adult book about growing up in the 1940s Jim Crow South and the brutal battle for social change. PW spoke with Beals about her new memoir.
What has fear taught you about God?
I was 50 when I wrote Warriors Don’t Cry and I still remembered how fear once guided my life and how I thought of my relationship with God like an exchange: I’ll do this, God, and you’ll do that. Now, I have come to see that it doesn’t work like that. God gives us our lives one piece at a time, like bits of a puzzle. His expectation is that we will trust him and do what he says.
Why is trusting God so hard?
You don’t get a program. You don’t get a syllabus. You just get a few puzzle pieces at a time dropped on you and you have to figure it where they fit the picture. Trusting God does not mean God is going to give you a perfect life. It could just mean you are ready for bigger lessons – and there’s no graduation. Ugly things happen and I keep saying to myself, “God loves me and all is well.”
The idea of being a warrior is threaded throughout I Will Not Fear. You’ve fought not only discrimination but also sexism, divorce, painful spine surgeries and more. What are your weapons against disillusionment, despair, and pain?
Patience, trust, and humility. This is how I “fight” now. I know now I don’t have to prove anything or fight every battle. God is waiting and he will reveal his solution. My grandmother always told me, “God is as close as our skin.” So I remind myself am in the place where God wants me to be, serving in my own way. I read a page of my Bible every day. I take time every year for spiritual learning. And I make time for church. There is no life without church. Our maker gives us an abundance of his time and we have to give back and to be among others who believe and see the good they do. I am always working on Melba.
Many Christians. including evangelical pastors, support President Trump while minority Christians see him as sparking a resurgence of white nationalism. What – or who – frightens you today?
My fears are for the people who compromise their own spiritual and religious status for their political status and enable Trump to move forward. I would say to them, “No! Change him! Help him find his path with God. If we don’t escort him back to God, we are all enablers.” I pray for Trump every morning. I do. But I also see a blessing here. Ask yourself, are you more awake than you have ever been? More angry? These are blessings. Be grateful and march forward.