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The cover of the Spring 2007 SF State Magazine features two penguins, heads bent together as they view their offspring on the ground below.

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A young Melba Beals holds tight to her schoolbooks as helmeted officers surround her. Melba Beals today faces the camera with steady and confident composure. Alumni & Friends

 

Breaking Barriers

Melba Pattillo Beals (B.A., '71) came to San Francisco State College with a "huge pain in my heart." Fifty years ago, on Sept. 23, 1957, she and eight other African-American youths braved an angry white mob to integrate Little Rock's Central High. The event was the first important test of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and a watershed in U.S. civil rights history.

But that first day at SF State, Beals was just a lonely, scared teenager. The Ku Klux Klan had driven her out of Arkansas, and she was still so afraid of whites that she hardly dared ask directions to her first class. The campus seemed big and she knew no one. The Little Rock Nine had made front-page news around the world, but Beals did not divulge that she was one of them. "I just didn't want to deal with it. I just wanted to run away," she recalls.

By the time she left SF State, Beals was a completely different person, confident of her place in history and emboldened to prepare for a career as a journalist and author. "Much of what I am I owe to the teachers and friends I met there," she says. Much of the credit, she says, goes to Lynn Ludlow, a former SF State journalism instructor.

Beals first came to know Ludlow, a highly regarded reporter and editor for the Hearst Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle, in a newswriting class. Beneath Beals' timidity and self-doubt, Ludlow saw the makings of a first-rate writer. She recalls his advice: "Melba, you're a writer, but it takes a lot longer to write than you think, so start now."

Beals was then raising a young daughter, but she nevertheless managed to start producing articles for the college newspaper, The Golden Gater. Later, as she prepared for graduation, Ludlow learned of a scholarship for minority students to study graduate-level journalism at Columbia University. Ludlow told Beals that if she wrote an essay about herself, he'd mail it for her. "When I came back to school next week, he said, ‘Pack your bags, girl, you're leaving.'"

After earning a master's degree, Beals worked at KQED-TV and KRON-TV and wrote for People magazine and other publications. Her books include two memoirs, "Warriors Don't Cry," which won the Robert F. Kennedy Award, and "White Is a State of Mind." The recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal, Beals currently chairs the Department of Communications at Dominican University of California.

This September, she returns to Little Rock for activities marking the 50th anniversary of the Central High integration. To read more about the Little Rock Nine and the 50th anniversary, visit www.nps.gov/chsc/

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