March Forward Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
March Forward Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine Book Poster Image
Must-read memoir of a childhood in the segregated South.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational value

While readers may have learned about "separate but equal" schools and "Whites Only" restrooms, they may not know about the daily humiliations African Americans in Little Rock were forced to endure because of segregation. Some parts of town had "No Colored Folks After Dark" and "No Colored Folks Any Time" signs. In stores, they were not allowed to touch or try on merchandise. To purchase something, they pointed to it and a clerk would retrieve it for them. If a white customer wanted to check out or be waited on, they had to step aside, even if they were there first. A clerk could refuse to touch money from an African American customer, instead picking it up with a handkerchief before putting it in the cash register.

Positive messages

You're never too young to stand up for what's right.

Positive role models & representations

Even as a child in elementary school, Melba didn't know her place. She knew she was worthy of being treated with respect and deserving of opportunities given only to white students. As one of the Little Rock Nine, she showed remarkable courage as she not only had to walk through angry mobs to get into school, but once there endured being kicked, tripped, and taunted by fellow students. Melba lived out what her grandmother had told her: "Sometimes you have to go where you aren't welcome."

Violence

The Ku Klux Klan is a terrifying presence in Little Rock's African American community. They beat, lynch, and rape people and terrorize neighborhoods at night, without fear of being arrested or punished. Children watch as a man is lynched inside a church by the KKK, a family has their house burned by the KKK and their bodies are hung from trees, and Melba narrowly avoids being raped by Klan members. White men feel free to "flirt" with African American women, touching their breasts and groping them. When Central High School is being integrated, a white policeman suggests that to divert the mob, one of the African American teenagers should be handed over to them to be hung. The KKK posts a bounty on the Little Rock Nine: $10,000 dead or $5,000 alive. 

Sex
Language

African Americans are consistently called the "N" word.  

Consumerism

Magazines (Life, Look, Time, and Ebony) and some TV shows (The Ed Sullivan Show) give Melba a window into a world where African American entertainers and athletes interact with whites and are treated with respect. 

Drinking, drugs & smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that March Forward Girl is a memoir by Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, African American teenagers who braved mobs and death threats to integrate the city's Central High School in 1957. Beals writes in heartbreaking detail of growing up in a community ruled by Jim Crow laws that segregated housing, schools, buses, bathrooms, and water fountains. Violence and the threat of violence were ever present in her childhood, and some instances may be shocking for readers, as when a man is lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in front of families attending a church service. Because the memoir ends with Beals in eighth grade (the story of the Little Rock Nine is addressed in an Epilogue), it provides a unique and powerful opportunity for young readers to experience life under segregation through the eyes of someone who lived through it as a child.

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What's the story?

In MARCH FORWARD GIRL, Melba Beals looks back on a childhood spent in racially segregated Little Rock, Arkansas. From the age of 3, Melba remembers knowing she lived in a place where she was not welcome, that there were places where the color of her skin meant she could not go there and things she could not do. Raised in a loving home that valued books and education (her mother was studying for a master's degree), she was constantly questioning the segregated world around her: Why couldn't she try on clothes in a department store? Why did adults allow themselves to be treated so badly by their white employers? By elementary school, Melba was spending hours thinking about how to move forward without endangering herself or her family. How to keep the "rules" laid down by her grandmother: Don't look white people in the eye, don't do anything to attract their attention, don't speak unless spoken to, don't smile or talk too loud, and never, never walk in front of them. She knew that breaking those rules could mean swift retaliation from the Ku Klux Klan, who could burn down a family home, rape a girl, or lynch a man simply for looking at a white woman. Despite the KKK and the "rules," when volunteers are recruited to integrate Little Rock's Central High School, eighth-grader Melba doesn't hesitate, and begins her freshman year as one of only nine African American students. At Central, she must walk through angry mobs to enter the school and endure threats and sometimes assaults from other students. Freshman year would be her only year at Central, as things proved so dangerous (the KKK posted a dead-or-alive bounty on the nine students) that she finished high school in California.

Is it any good?

This is a powerful, heartrending, and sometimes shocking memoir of life in the segregated South of the 1940s and '50s, told through the eyes of an African American girl. Much more than a history lesson, March Forward Girl is a vehicle for open and honest discussion between parents and readers about the terrifying consequences of prejudice taken to its most extreme.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the deep-seated racial hatred described in March Forward Girl. Why do you think so many white people in Little Rock supported Jim Crow laws and segregation? How could they not know it was wrong?

  • Why do you think Melba is called a warrior in the book's subtitle? Can someone be nonviolent and still be considered a warrior?

  • If getting a good education meant walking through an angry mob to get to class, would you do it?

Book details

Themes & Topics

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