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Interview TranscriptMelba Pattillo Beals

Melba Pattillo Beals

Melba Pattillo Beals, one of nine African-American students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, answered questions from students in February 1998 & 1999 during live interviews. Today, Melba is a successful author and speaker, but as a teenager, she encountered many obstacles in her effort to receive an education equal to white students in Little Rock. She and the rest of the Little Rock Nine were the focus of a bitter fight that became a major event in American history.

Growing Up | Central High School: 1957 | Civil Rights Movement | Central High: Forty Years Later | Race Relations Today

Growing Up

Did you experience much in the way of racial discrimination growing up?

Growing up I lived the primer of racial discrimination. As I've written in my book: "Racial discrimination comes to you teaspoon by teaspoon." Every single day, every moment of every day of your life when you're young, something happens. You're different. It's like a brand-new instructor hitting you with new rules every day. Every time this happens to you, it dawns on you slowly how you're going to be living your life as a second-class citizen.

Black folks weren't born expecting segregation, prepared from day one to follow its confining rules. Nobody presents you with a handbook when you're teething, and says, "Here's how you must behave as a second-class citizen." Instead, the humiliating expectation and traditions of segregation creep over you, slowly stealing a teaspoon of your self-esteem each day. So, yes, I grew up with segregation. You bet!

What was it like to live in an era where racism and prejudice were always part of your lives?

Growing up in Little Rock was scary. I had to listen to the adults talk constantly about what the white people wanted us to do, and what they would do to us if we didn't follow their whims. Part of my life was spent trying to figure out what the white people wanted us to do. It was like living in jail and I wouldn't wish it on anybody. When I heard recently about those white men in Texas dragging a black man through the streets to his death, it gave me chills. (Note: In June 1998, James Byrd, Jr., a black man, was dragged to his death from the back of a pickup truck in a rural section of Texas where the Ku Klux Klan is active. In February 1999, John William King was the first of three men convicted for the murder by a Texas court.) I actually spent the last two nights up all night thinking about it. I thought back to what I experienced as a child.

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Central High School: 1957

Do you consider yourself an important part of history? Why did you decide to go to Central?

Only now in hindsight, yes, I do. But there has been lots of misunderstanding about why we went to Central High School. Let me be clear: We didn't go to Central to "integrate." We didn't go to Central to sit beside white people, as if they had some magic dust or something. I would not risk my life to sit next to white people. No, no, no, no.

We went to Central for opportunity. We didn't understand integration; we didn't even know the word integration. True, we would learn the meaning of that word as the year progressed, but we wanted to go to Central High first and foremost because of access, because of resources, because of books and good furniture. Because it was seven stories high and four square blocks in diameter. It looked like a castle. By its very dimensions it was at least 14 times larger than my high school, and what it offered was at least 14 times higher in its quality. Central High School had the forerunner of computers. It had six departments devoted to home economics, science labs, an entire floor for their band. It was considered at the time one of America's finest schools, ranked 35th in the nation in terms of the quality of the physical plant — the building, the equipment. It was turning out Rhodes scholars and offering the highest level of education. It was at the cutting edge in this nation. And that's what I wanted. I wanted a shot at being a Rhodes scholar. I wanted equality. Why shouldn't I go to a place that my parents paid for with their taxes?

My previous school got Central's old, used, greasy stuff. Broken tables, used books. If something was broken and damaged it came to our school. So, we didn't care about them. We were just tired, exhausted from getting all the castoffs from white schools. We wanted access to opportunity. My grandmother had this saying: "If you are not in the kitchen when they're slicing the pie, you will not get a share of it."

Let's get real here. Integration is just a lightly concocted word for "share the wealth"; access to the pie; getting a slice of the American dream. Equal opportunity. We understood Rhodes scholarships, new equipment, wanting to lead better lives. The nine of us went to Central because we wanted to share in that. We also wanted to go to the best colleges, get the best jobs. We risked our lives for access to opportunity, to jobs. We had no illusions that sitting next to white people would lead to better lives. But being in that school would.

How did your family feel about your going to Central? Were they concerned about you?

My father was so concerned that it became the last straw that broke in the relationship between my mother and father. They had separated, but my father was adamant that I shouldn't go. He believed from the beginning that there would be lots of violence. My mother believed that there would be some problems, but nothing like there was, no violence. My grandmother always thought I should go. None of these people imagined, though, that in their wildest dreams there would be raging mobs, that people would threaten to kill us and keep us from going to school.

My parents fought adamantly over this issue, even while I was attending Central. My dad was being tortured on his job, as were the parents of the other Little Rock Nine. Of the nine sets of parents, five of those parents lost their jobs over this school issue, including my own mother. My father was harassed, and every time he was, he'd talk to me about trying to quit. He'd say it's not worth all this. People are going to starve, people are going hungry. And he was correct about this predicament. Stress doesn't begin to describe what my family was feeling. It was like we were living in a pressure cooker.

What was it like to walk through the crowds of white protestors?

Let me start by saying, let's not call these people protestors. Protestors stand and march with placards. They may shout, but they shout their demands. The people who surrounded Central High School carried ropes to hang us with, guns and knives to kill us with. They shouted "nigger go home" — and that was the most polite thing they shouted — and they attacked us for no reason. All we had to do was walk near them and they'd attack us. It was an angry, raging mob. They were not protestors.

And it was absolutely terrifying to walk past them. Every moment I wondered what would become of me. It was the kind of fear I had never known. And it went on for most of the year.

What was it like to go to school at Central? We read that you were threatened and very scared.

I was really frightened at Central. There really is no word big enough to explain the fear I felt. It was as though a hand was clutching my stomach. It was the first time I felt my heart beat really fast. And it was the first time I thought to myself that I could be killed or I could be really hurt.

What are some things that people said or did that offended you or scared you, and how did you handle it?

In the beginning when people called me names — like nigger, or ugly — it hurt my feelings. But I had to learn that what my grandmother said was correct: just because someone calls you a name, doesn't make it so. If you don't believe that, she said, have someone call you rich, and wait for the coins to jingle in your pocket. So, I had to learn that neither sticks, nor stones, nor names need affect me.

You've got to know who you are, and stand with that. Realize that when somebody hits you, the only way they get any fun or pleasure out of it is from your response. To deny that response is to hit them back. You don't even have to touch them.

Who was scarier, the parents or the students? Which of these groups' anger surprised you more?

The parents anger surprised me more; their behavior surprised me more. I thought there were rules for how adults should behave. It frightened me to death that these adults would hit us. After all, if a kid hits you that's one thing, but if an adult does, that's like mommy and daddy. I was stunned by it. These were adults and they threatened me. That was the scary part, the danger. They were breaking the rules.

How did you feel when there were only nine black students going to Central High when you thought there would be 100 total?

I was TERRIFIED! The first day there were so many of them and so few of us. I was absolutely terrified.

What did you think of the police? What did you think of the U.S. soldiers?

I think that two Little Rock police officers saved my life the first time I was in the school. But some of the Little Rock police threw down their badges and joined the mob.

I was in Little Rock recently, and I had the opportunity to hug the man who drove the car away through the mob. And so I think he's wonderful. But to the ones who ignored us, when we needed them the most, especially the ones who ignored Elizabeth Eckford when she was moving through that mob, that was awful!

As for the 101st Airborne, I love them. Wherever they are, I wish them Godspeed and the blessings of the world. Without them I'd be dead. Their behavior was never less than that of good American soldiers. They were really great. They did a fabulous job. They never let the fact that they were white stop them from doing their job of protecting us.

What was it like to go to school with people protecting you?

At first, when the soldiers came it was a big novelty. It was also a big relief because we were so frightened in that town. But then, the morning we went to school there were helicopters overhead, and jeeps driving back and forth with turret guns mounted on their hoods. I realized then that if I was so in danger that I needed all those soldiers, then I must have been in A LOT of trouble.

At the same time, it also made me feel proud that I would have soldiers there to protect me. I knew in my heart that this was a very unusual time in my life. I was special at that moment because the President had sent soldiers all the way to Little Rock.

You have written that you valued the help of the press during this difficult experience. Can you explain why?

Without their presence, shining a light on what was going on, I might be dead by now. The press was there every single day with their cameras flashing. They counted us, literally, so that if one of us was missing, they'd ask where we were.

By picturing us in the newspaper, people saw us as individuals. But also, just their presence was so important. Here were white folks with cameras and liberal, open minds, observing. It is difficult to hang someone with the camera pointed your way.

I love the press. It is our protector. As long as someone neutral, not a party to the action, observes the action, it makes a difference. If there had been press around, James Chaney and the other civil rights workers might not have died.

How did it feel to have President Eisenhower call you?

{Laughs} Funny you should mention that since I'm about to have lunch with Bill Clinton. President Eisenhower didn't call me. He sent a secret service person to my front door. That person's coming made me feel lucky, and gave me some sense of security. At that moment, I figured that if the President knows about this, then he's going to do something about it.

What do you think was the main reason for all of the racism in Central High? Do you think that it was the times or how those kids were raised?

It was the times and the fact that those kids had cut their teeth on racist discussions and words and deeds from the time they were born. They sat at dinner tables and watched their mothers and fathers laugh at "nigger" jokes. Some of them probably stood outside doors ajar as their fathers dressed in white sheets to ride with the Klan. And they heard their grandmothers talk about how black people weren't human. And day after day after day, they looked on as black people were treated with inhumanity. So, they were following a tradition set over many hundreds of years.

I couldn't stand what you went through. How did you keep your cool?

It wasn't easy to not fight back or talk back. But learning how to do that has been very important. Adults told me that if you hit back and fight back, you'll lose. I was so angry sometimes. Hot tears would come down my cheeks. And yet, even Martin Luther King told us: "Don't be selfish. Remember, you're doing this for future generations."

Do you ever still have dreams or fears because of what you went through when you were a teenager?

Yes, no question about it. I still run into an enormous amount of prejudice, even in California. It's does not have the same power, but I still feel it. Writing my book, Warriors Don't Cry, was very helpful, but I still occasionally have issues that arise because of it.

Did your mom ever try to talk you into going back to your old school? What encouraged you to continue attending that school?

My mom always said to me, "I'll support you in whatever you do. I'll support you, but think about all the issues involved. Are you so frightened that you can't do your work?" My grandmother was really my best friend, my real support. She said, "If this is something you're supposed to do, then God will stand by you and let you finish it."

Were you lonely during that school year?

There was a point in time when I peered into a mirror and pinched myself to see if I was alive, because I was very lonely. It was terrible to feel so shut off. You feel like you don't exist. People were talking about me while standing around me, as if I wasn't there or didn't count.

When you're a teenager, what you want most is to be welcomed. I only got to see the other eight students at lunch. When I'd pass them in the hall on rare occasions, I'd go nuts; it was wonderful. Most of the time I was on my own.

Was anyone helpful or kind? Did teachers treat you badly, too?

Teachers treated me badly. A few students were kind in the beginning — they smiled, offered directions, offered books. But then they were beat up or treated badly. Still, there was one girl named Robin and a boy named Link who were helpful. There was a shorthand teacher named Mrs. Pickwick, and she was wonderful. Mrs. Pickwick was no-nonsense and would not allow me to be bothered in her classroom. She also made me feel welcome. Just sitting in her room was such a respite because she wouldn't let anyone in her room say or do anything.

The white vice-principal, Mrs. Elizabeth Huckaby, wasn't warm, but she did her job and did her best to facilitate our safety. All throughout this incident she was our link to safety and other adults. There was one time that she stood between us and a group of 40 kids who were threatening us on the stairs. While she didn't necessarily believe in integration, she protected us whenever she could. She was the one person we could report the problems we were experiencing to.

Did any of the white kids at Central High School — other than your friend Link — act friendly toward you, or actually try to become friends?

Yes. In the first few days several students reached out to us. But as time passed, all that changed, because those students were beaten up and taunted by the segregationists.

A girl named Robin gave Terry Roberts a book; she was very sweet. She was beaten up on the way home, and so she stopped. Several students did try to be nice to us, no question. But it was not possible to become friends. In every instance when they tried to reach out to us, the crowd would get them, ostracize them, or beat them.

How did you feel when the kids who tried to be friends with you were beaten?

Oh, I thought that was really sad. It was frightening that they were willing to beat up other people! How could this be? If they were willing to beat up their own people, then what did it say about what they might do to me? That was scary to think about.

When your friend Link warned you about plots to harm you, which plots scared you the most?

Whenever he told me about something they were going to do to me inside the classroom, it was really scary. I knew I could be trapped. The very fact of him telling me was frightening to me. For the first time in my life I had to face the fact that someone was planning my demise — people spent time thinking about how to hurt me.

What did your friends or the kids at the local black high school think about your efforts to integrate Central High School?

My friends at first thought it was okay. But after the first few weeks the community around me didn't think we were integrating their lives — we were destroying their lives. As time went on they suffered because the white community was squeezing us by squeezing them. They were being attacked for what I was doing! They were losing their jobs and what small advantages they had. It wasn't about any celebration.

Did you ever come home and say, "I don't want to do this anymore"?

Oh, yeah, several times. I came home after a particularly bad day when I was injured and I said, "I don't want to do this anymore." I told my grandmother and she said, "you're just going to let them win?" And she would remind me that you are assigned a life task by God. We are all here to do something, to complete something, we're not just here to play. When you recognize that reason but you deny it, there's a penalty. So, she would tell me that the universe had assigned me this task. And if I didn't carry this out, big penalties would follow. It was a tough place to be as a kid.

Was there any time that you could forget about your troubles?

Saturday mornings. I tried to get up really early before anybody else. I would pretend that everything was okay. I would sit among my toys and dolls in my room and pretend everything was okay. But in reality, there was no place to feel safe.

How in the world did you have the courage to stay in school all year when they wanted to kill you?

It wasn't my courage, in a way. It was kind of God's courage. I prayed every moment of every day. And always in my young mind was the hope that the next day, the next hour, the people who were behaving badly and treating me so harshly would come to their senses. The most important reason I stayed was the understanding that there was no alternative. The only other choice was to continue living in the white man's jar with his foot on my neck. And so, I had to stay — for myself and, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "for generations unborn."

Now look at today: My brother is a U.S. marshal — the first black captain of the Arkansas state troopers. These are the same troopers who lined up in front of Central to keep me out. My cousin was a mayor of Little Rock! No one can tell me that our going to Central was not a catalyst for change.

Why did you decide to go to California to finish up your education?

I was out of school for a year because the Governor closed the schools. And the Ku Klux Klan offered a $10,000 reward to injure or hurt any one of the nine students. That made me and my parents realize that it was time to get out of there. I had never met the family that I moved in with. The NAACP put a call out for help. Families across the country volunteered, and the NAACP chose the family. My latest book explains that experience of coming to California and finding a place in the human family for myself. The book is entitled White Is a State of Mind.

Were there a lot of African-American students in California?

No. Unfortunately, in the school I attended I was one black among maybe eight or ten in Santa Rosa. There I was in the same predicament. The difference was they weren't hostile. But I was still alone, looking for my place.

We just want you to know that we're so glad we go to a grade school where black and white kids are treated as equals and can be friends. Thanks for doing what you did, Melba!

You are very lucky and very blessed, and you should enjoy each other's companionship. Each of you has something very special to share. Don't exclude anybody because everyone has a very special gift to share. And thanks so much for your congratulations!

What is the most important lesson you learned from your early experiences?

Here are the lessons I learned from the experiences of Little Rock: To count on God first, and then on yourself. And, you have to know who you are.

If you had it to do over again, would you follow the same path?

Yes, I would do it again and follow the same path. Going to Central High School altered the course of my life. It was absolute agony to be there, no question. But some of the gifts that have come to me since then have been absolute ecstasy. Like the white family who took me in when I came to California from Little Rock. Like the joy of their taking me over the bridge to adulthood. They came to be my second set of parents. Living through that experience gave me a lot of faith in God, faith in myself, and it made me understand the world at a much younger age than many people do. What appeared at the time to be the most awful thing became the most wonderful instructor and tutor. I hope all the people involved in talking to me now will understand that the things they see in their lives that seem terrible at the moment could be blessings that enable them to do things they might not have been able to do otherwise.

Did the things you experienced during that year at Central High School give you a different perspective on life?

The things that I experienced reshaped the course of my entire life. They no doubt affected the lives of my children, and no doubt will affect my grandchildren. And I suspect the events affected the lives of the other eight students similarly and in many ways.

Do you ever wonder if things would have been different if you hadn't gone to Central High?

Yes, I do wonder what my life would've been like. I'm really grateful that I did go to Central High. I believe that things happen for a reason, and I'm grateful for my life. And my eight-year-old says, "so am I!"

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Civil Rights Movement

What civil rights event affected you the most, besides the one at Little Rock?

The passage of the Voting Rights Act, when Lyndon Johnson was President. I really feel that the answer to our problems is to educate and inform ourselves. Number two is to claim your own power. Folks can only take advantage of you when you let them. By voting and being prepared to vote, you have a voice and a say-so.

You have to be politically aware of what's going on in your neighborhood, your city, your state, region, and country. The vote defines who a college education is for, who jobs are for, who you choose to represent you politically. You'll be living out what you decide with those votes. So, the passage of the Voting Rights Act was very significant. It often is not given enough credit. President Johnson was key to getting this legislation passed.

Who was your hero as a child?

I had lots of them. My grandmother, and Nat "King" Cole, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. — he was probably the most profound.

What was it like meeting Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Meeting Martin Luther King was a trip. I saw to be true everything that people wrote about him, or I saw on TV. In his presence I felt serenity. I felt as though I should hold my hands in a prayer position, and start to pray. I felt calmness, peace, and love. And I felt like "Oh, boy, I can be better than I am." His very demeanor reflected God's love. It was incredible.

How did you feel when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated?

Just terrible. That whole trio — John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy — it was devastating. The Kennedys were the first white people in power who we ever thought would listen and try to help. Losing all three men took away a lot of hope. Then my mother reminded me that God is my hope. He had sent John and Bobby and Martin to lead us. You have to keep faith and keep going. But I was VERY sad when Martin was killed. It lasted for a year. Someone actually shot him! It meant that I really was not safe. In my book White Is a State of Mind, I talk about that, about how everything started unraveling for me. It was really daunting because how could they shoot this powerful man? If he could be shot, then anyone could! I'd met Martin Luther King a couple of times, and he was an awesome person. He had such quiet dignity. You knew he was someone special when you were in his presence. You got his strength and power inside your soul. For that to be eradicated by somebody's bullet? Yeah, I was really devastated.

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Central High: Forty Years Later

Do you keep in touch with the other eight kids of the Little Rock Nine who went to Central with you — or with any of the white students?

Yes, I'm in contact often with the other eight kids. We recently spent a week together in Little Rock with 125 members of our families. We don't see each other often, though we do call and we e-mail each other. They're like my brothers and sisters. We love each other, and we treasure every moment that we have together. We adore each other. We realize that we survived only by the grace of God, and we were meant to be together. President Clinton met with all of us and 100 or so of our family members in September of 1997. That was the dream of a lifetime. I don't see any of the white students, although there were a couple at the ceremony.

What did you think of the 40th anniversary reunion? How did you feel walking up those same high school steps 40 years later?

Walking up the stairs 40 years later, I felt proud. Most of us were in tears. It was a very moving moment. I felt there is a God, and all the hopes and dreams we have can come true. If you really believe in something, and you really want it, and you know it's right, don't give up. Because it can happen, you know? It can happen.

Stand by your dreams and hopes. I had a right to walk up those stairs. I deserved to walk up those stairs, through the front door. And when that young black man came out in his black morning suit and tie, bowed to us and bid us a good morning, and said, "I am Derrick Noble, the president of the student body. Welcome to Central High," we were just in tears. We were shaking, we were joyful, everything we could possibly be. Every single moment of pain and disappointment and sacrifice we had gone through made it okay.

Because he'd gotten there. We had gone to Central because that young black man had a right to be the president of the student body. The blessing was realized. My grandmother used to say, "Be patient, wait on the Lord. Your blessings will be realized." Mine were.

I'd just like to add that another moving moment was when we were invited to the governor's mansion. There we all were, hanging out in the place in which Governor Faubus was planning our demise!

How did it feel to walk up the steps of the same school that you changed, not with soldiers, but with the President of the United States, Bill Clinton?

Oh, that was fun! President Clinton is incredibly warm and funny and dear and so we had a wonderful time with him. My brother, my mother, and I knew him as Governor of Arkansas. He was the first Governor who made me feel comfortable about coming back to Arkansas. There is nothing racist about him. There's nothing about him that makes you feel that he is not loving and kind. It was a wonderful experience for me and my children to meet with him. And it felt as though what my grandmother had said so many years earlier was true: time brings about a change. You just have to have faith and believe. Sometimes, of course, it takes too long. Sometimes in my prayers I say to God, "come on, you're taking too long." It does seem that at this point my eight-year-old kid shouldn't be hearing some of the things other kids say — like being told what they can't be or do. But still, what they've experienced is far different from what happened to me.

How would you feel if your children tried to do what you did?

My daughter, who is now in her early 30s did do it, almost by accident. She ended up going to a Lutheran School that hadn't been integrated. She was in fourth or fifth grade. They were integrating from the bottom up and she was having a terrible time. It was physically endangering and emotionally she had a very difficult time. She heard the word nigger for the first time, for example. My daughter made it through that year because I told her that if she didn't, she wouldn't understand her own strength and determination to complete something. I didn't want her to go through her life thinking about this. The irony of this is that she's a mixed child — her father is white Irish. At the end of the year, I remember that she ran up the driveway saying that was it, she didn't want to go back. And I agreed.

How many people from Central High have come back or written to tell you they are sorry for what they did? You're the bravest person I know of, along with Rosa Parks.

Nobody's ever told me that they're sorry. However, there are two women in my life, Dana Lawrence and Jane McNally, who are white women I met in 1994 when I was doing research on my book. They said to me, we love you and we will make up to you for anything that was done. And it was true, they became family. They are like sisters to me. I call them Jane Bird and Dana Bird — white Doves of Peace. They came when I most needed them, when my mother was gravely ill in Little Rock. Going to Central had compromised many of my relationships with black kids in Little Rock because they were abused by the white community. So, I had very few people to connect with. These women indeed became my friends, my family.

Ms. Beals, can you tell us about Central High today?

Today, it's 60 percent black. However, it's also a lovely bouquet of people. They have a tracking system that I don't like. I think tracking dooms children to a certain standard of living. It basically looks the same as when I attended. They're doing some refurbishing now. It's not a place that I want to spend a lot of time in, but I was glad to walk through the halls again and feel the power of academic excellence that's still there.

What was it like being such an important part of the civil rights movement?

At the time it was happening, I didn't know I was such an important part. I just knew about my own personal fears and the personal burden that I carried. In retrospect I am awed by, for example, receiving the Congressional Gold Medal — the country's highest award — for what I did in Little Rock. I'm really honored and astonished. It points up the significance of what the Little Rock Nine accomplished. Each of us will be receiving the award sometime in the next couple of months. It's very exciting: I'm really humbled. Only 300 people have ever gotten it — including George Washington, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and Colin Powell.

Congratulations, Melba!

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Race Relations Today

Have you written any new books lately, and if so, what are they?

My latest book is called White Is a State of Mind. It recounts what happened after I left Central High School and Little Rock until I became an NBC news reporter. It takes me through being taken in by white parents, college, etc. It's a healing book, explaining the healing I went through after Little Rock. Ultimately I would reside with white sisters and brothers who even now are still in my life. My white family walked me over the bridge to adulthood. I talk to my white mom every other day. She comes to visit. The four children in that family are now like my sisters and brothers. This book is about healing the wounds of Central High and Little Rock. It's about the fact that color can never be an issue. My salvation, when I had to get away, was with a white family. So, it's about a coming together. The people I lived with looked a lot like the people in the mobs outside the school. The first day I went to college I went with my white father, who said, "I'm here to register my daughter." I hope that you read the book!

Do you get questions from black students now about how to deal with racism?

Yes, I do. Most of the time I say pick your battles. Just because someone calls you a name, doesn't make you that name. If they do, then ask them to call you rich and feel the coins jingling in your pocket. A name doesn't mean anything. Whatever is happening to you, the thing that will help you survive it is your sense of yourself. The second thing is that in this day and age there is no reason to take anybody's "stuff." Sometimes you will have an occasion to come back and say something. The bottom line is love is the answer, but sometimes you have to respond. I still get called names. But now I say, you really think I'm such and such? We'll let's pray together. You really think so? That just startles them. I say, let's be together with the Lord. And they're so startled they don't know what to do. This is a lot better for me than striking out. If I strike out, then usually I'm the one who gets hurt.

Do you carry any prejudice against white people today?

NO! NO! NO! Any prejudice that I carry today would hurt me, not them. And I have these white parents who helped to rear me. I had lunch with my white mother just a couple of days ago. She is the grandmother of my children. You know, white is a state of mind. You can be as free as you want to be. Now, if you're asking me if I'm disappointed that things haven't gotten better between the races, then I'd have to say yes. Forty years later, when my son comes home and tells me that somebody in his classroom either called him a racial name or insult, or told him he couldn't be a policeman because he's black, then I get angry. But the difference between yesterday's and today's anger is that I point to the picture of my brother on the wall. I say, "See your uncle up there? He was captain in the Arkansas state troopers — the same group that tried to keep me out of Central — and now he's a U.S. marshal in Arkansas! So, HELLO!! You can be what you want to be. When they tell you you can't, you can tell them they're wrong!

Do you think racism will ever stop?

Oh, what scary question that is! I pray racism will stop. And I think the consequence if it does not is disaster. Each one of us has the task before us to help it stop. Just look what kind of ugliness it can bring forth. The black man dragged to his death, for example. You can't have that kind of sore in your community. Who can stand and make a judgment that a man deserves to be killed because of the color of his skin? Think of all the ugly energy that's used to continue racism. Just think what could be done if people's energies were used on other things.

What makes you angry as you look at the situation in the country today? What makes you have hope?

What makes me angry is that neither white people nor black people remember what integration was all about. Integration is about sharing the wealth. If we don't share resources and include everybody in the mainstream, we doom ourselves to disaster. If we leave out any brother, and he has to turn to drugs or crime, then we all have to pay. As long as one person is left out, it's not going to work. Integration is a polite word for sharing resources. When people say let's start a black school or a Hispanic school, it drives me crazy. Survival is about sharing resources. No matter what color you are, you need money to buy the things you need. And what makes me joyful? It's people like President Clinton. He is willing to listen to me. He is willing to try his best. He is willing to look for answers, to search for the answers. He's not willing to look the other way and pretend everything is okay. When we see him befriend people of all colors and creeds, when he accords access to everybody, he's showing us equality. In terms of his racial attitudes he's showing that equality is a byword, and that makes me joyful. It makes me joyful that there are young black people who have enormous expectations. Nothing inside them is willing to accept inequality. They demand to be seen as equal.

Is there anything that kids today can do to improve race relations?

Be willing to listen to those people who talk to you. Be willing to look at those people who are willing to talk to you, and be able to see that they are different but they are equal.

The whole goal is to see equal and be equal. Protect your rights and protect others' rights. The key word here is Namastι — "let the God in you see the God in everybody else," and respect that. That person in front of you is a child of God. You don't have a right to make a judgment. When you respect the differences in other people you respect the differences in yourself.

I am really grateful that you all are willing to have me here. The greatest gift you can give to anyone is to listen to them. You have listened to me and I appreciate that. Namasté.

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