March Forward Girl: Melba Beals

By Theresa Arocena

Posted on Thursday, April 26th, 2018 at 4:47 PM PDT

On Tuesday, April 3rd, Dr. Melba Patillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, former professor and chair of Dominican’s Communications and Media Studies Department and founder of TORCH leadership here at Dominican, spoke at the “Unity in Diversity” keynote address. She highlighted the need to continue the work begun by herself  and her fellow Civil Rights activists. She praised the efforts of the young people who organized March For Our Lives, pointing out how change has always had young people at its forefront. Dr. Beals encouraged the audience to be leaders for change for our generation. She also spoke with students on April 5th before the Leadership Awards, reiterating this point and giving students advice about how to bring change on the Dominican campus.

Dr. Beals spoke of how being a student at  Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, were both the worst and best moments of her life. It may be difficult for most Dominican students to imagine what it was like to be an African American student integrating a segregated high school in the South, but Dr. Beals is masterful at telling the story.

Imagine having to walk into a crowd knowing that by doing so you could very much lose your life. Imagine a hatred so potent and ugly that it has scarred America so deeply that it affected people for generations. Imagine having to take the brunt of that as a young teenager. For Melba Patillo Beals, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Thelma Mothershed and Terrence Roberts, this was their reality. In Dr. Beals’ book , she talks about how her mother and she were chased by white men who wanted to rape them and then kill them. She talks of fear and isolation from Caucasian communities and her own.

She is a woman who has lived through much and I find myself drawn to something that was not even something she figured out on her own. At fifteen, she met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the basement of Daisy Bates’ home who, at the time, was the president of the Arkansas state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was in that basement where he said to her, “Melba, don’t be selfish. You’re not doing this for yourself. You are doing this for generations yet unborn.”    

This kind of life working in social justice  is compelling and demanding and filled with a selfless kind of love. Most importantly, I think remembering this is a good anchor for those who continue the work that the Civil Rights Movement left for us to do. There are so many things to fight for and so many people to free and it is hard. It is grueling and painstaking and often times, so very unsatisfying. It can be easy to forget how difficult change can be and I am glad that Dr. Beals does not try to tiptoe around the ugly parts. She briefly mentioned how she had acid thrown in her eyes and that it still affects her today. Dr. Beals spoke with surprising frankness about what she experienced, something that surprised me. She treated the horrors of the era as everyday life and I suppose that my incredulousness of her nonchalant attitude about it stems from the fact that I have never had to live as she did. Still, it humbles a person and I think it gives a bit more validation to advice she gives since not only is she so blase about it, but she triumphs over it.

The physical, emotional and mental torture she underwent was deeply challenging, but what came from it propelled her future. After Little Rock, she came to California and was living with Caucasian foster parents Dr. George McCabe and his wife Carol and their children. Dr. Beals explained how wary she was of them at first, speculating if this was a trap set up by the Ku Klux Klan to kill her. It was not, and as she states in her book “I will not fear,” they taught her about unprejudiced white people, about broadening her horizons and the meaning of unconditional love. She then attended San Francisco State University where she earned a bachelor's degree. Dr. Beals went on to New York for graduate school and was awarded with a certificate in journalism and media from the Ford Foundation, and Columbia University, recognizing her as one of 32 minority journalists in the country who integrated the Media.

Dr. Beals’ successful career in journalism and public relations included holding posts as an on-camera television reporter for KQED’s Newsroom, as an NBC-TV news reporter, and as a radio news talk show host for KGO, ABC radio, all in San Francisco. She has written articles for People, Family Circle, Ladies Home Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine.

Praise was robust for “Warriors Don’t Cry,” her one woman stage play based on her searing civil rights memoir of the same name. On Beals’ website, one mother from Southtington, CT wrote:  “No one who sees this will be tempted to use the ‘N’ word as casual slang, once you have witnessed it used as a weapon of hate.” Dr. Beals ran her own public relations firm, and that led to the publication in 1990 of her best selling book on self promotion, “Expose Yourself.”   

In 1999 Dr. Beals joined Dominican University of California where she founded the Department of Communications and Media Studies. Under her leadership, first as director, and later as chair, the program grew, responding swiftly to the rapidly changing media industry. As news broadcasting and publishing industries merged with video and Web formats, the department expanded its offering to reflect this convergence. Students gained the opportunity to write across the media and learn new technologies such as digital video, podcasting, and digital radio.

Dr. Beals introduced programs that allowed students to gain real-world experiences including the University’s student-operated Internet radio station, as well as The Habit, the student newspaper. The multi-media journalism class that created and produced The Habit received high praise from external WASC accreditation reviewers as “the best, class in the entire school.”

Continuing her commitment to equality of opportunity, Dr. Beals also helped found the university’s Diversity Action Group that helped to establish Dominican as a diversity-affirming institution. She also created the university’s TORCH program, a student support and mentoring program for entering students. In 2009, Melba received her doctoral degree in international multicultural studies from the University of San Francisco, and in 2014 retired as Chair Emerita from Dominican.

Dr. Beals detailed her experience at trying to create a program here at Dominican with the purpose of  turning out leaders who will create change for the rest of the world, this program she created she calls “her baby;” the TORCH Leadership program. She described her hopes to target marginalized communities and to blur the lines of what people consider “other.” Her hope was that TORCH would be a foundation for students to learn and then carry on the work that Beals’ and her peers began. She spoke of how dear it is to her heart, but explained that she could not have left it in better hands than with Rabbi Henry Shriebman, who she described as the Father of TORCH. Dr. Beals also offered a private session before the Leadership Awards to speak  plainly to students, specifically requesting that TORCH students attend.

I do not know if I could have done what they did. I do not know if I believe my generation could do that. When you are young, the world is waiting and there is nothing, but possibility. There is grit and dream, (so uniquely different from any other time) because they have yet been subjected to the disappointment that adulthood can bring. With youth, there is hope - the kind of hope that keeps moving; hope that breeds revolution. As the time progresses and life goes on and you get slightly bigger than you were yesterday, it gets harder to hold onto that naive, blind faith that came with youth. You grow up, and you forget what it was to be young, and strong, and proud, and scared, and brave and wanting to reshape the world into a place with more hope, with more color in it, the passion to fight takes a backseat to adult problems. You have to worry about money, your significant other, your children, the mundane parts of life that no one actually really wants to deal with, but has to. We forget that we do not fight for ourselves because who knows if we actually get to see the consequences of our actions? We do it for those to come, those yet unborn.