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What The Beatles and Beyoncé's 'Blackbird' means to this Little Rock Nine member

Melba Pattillo Beals, 82, went on to receive a master's degree from Columbia University and a doctoral degree at the University of San Francisco.
USF Office of Marketing Communications
Melba Pattillo Beals, 82, went on to receive a master's degree from Columbia University and a doctoral degree at the University of San Francisco.

Beyoncé's recent cover of The Beatles classic "Blackbird" was especially profound to listeners who know that the song pays homage to the Little Rock Nine — a group of Black students who were at the center of the fight to desegregate public schools in the United States.

Her version, which is featured on her new album Cowboy Carter, was even more meaningful to one member of the Little Rock Nine, Melba Pattillo Beals.

"This is the story of my life," she told NPR.

Beals was 15 years old when she enrolled at the previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. She and eight other Black students were famously escorted by the 101st Airborne Division on their first day of class. They also endured verbal and physical harassment throughout high school.

Paul McCartney saidon several occasions that "Blackbird" was inspired by the Little Rock Nine. He also said the term "Blackbird" represented "Black girl" in a 2018 interview with GQ.

Beals, 82, went on to be a reporter and author of several books including Warrior Don't Cry and March Forward, Girl. A fan of both The Beatles and Beyoncé, she said the song is more special to her than ever.

Beals added that she is especially proud of Beyoncé, who produced her latest album despite initial backlash for entering the country music genre.

"People ignored the song's meaning for a long time," Beals said. "But when the Queen B speaks, people will listen. And when people listen, they may open their minds to compassion about differences."

In this photo from Oct. 15, 1957, seven of nine Black students walk onto the campus of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., with a National Guard officer as an escort and as other troops watch.
Fred Kaufman / AP
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AP
In this photo from Oct. 15, 1957, seven of nine Black students walk onto the campus of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., with a National Guard officer as an escort and as other troops watch.

'Blackbird' reminds Beals of her grandmother's advice growing up: 'You have to keep going no matter what'

When the original "Blackbird" came out in 1968, Beals — who was in her late-20s at the time — immediately felt the song was relatable.

"I didn't think it was about the Little Rock Nine, but I wondered if it was about Black pain," she said.

The lyrics "Blackbird singing in the dead of night" reminded her of how slaves relied on music to cope with the pain of daily life. Beals added that the next set of lyrics — "Take these broken wings and learn to fly" and "Take these sunken eyes and learn to see" — captured Black Americans' strength and determination in a country that historically prevented them from succeeding.

"It reminded me of what my grandmother said to me when I came home from Central High School complaining about the abuse I had taken during the day: 'March forward, girl. You have to keep going no matter what,'" Beals said.

Melba Pattillo Beals in 1957.
/ Associated Press
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Associated Press
Melba Pattillo Beals in 1957.

Beals felt especially thankful for the song because it was her longtime dream to write music about her experiences and those of other Black Americans.

Growing up, Beals said, she was told to rarely speak her mind. So she channeled her thoughts into diary entries and songwriting. She wanted to become a singer, but Beals said her mother was not supportive.

"My mother wouldn't let me. She said Black people cannot survive without higher education," Beals said.

When Beyoncé sings 'Blackbird fly,' Beals understands it as 'I've done it, you can do it too'

When McCartney sings "Blackbird fly," Beals interprets it as meaning "I see you." But when the words come from Beyoncé, Beals said she understands it as "I've done it, you can do it too."

"It gives it a new meaning," Beals said. "She's saying whatever is your thing, get up, pack your wings and fly."

She hopes Beyoncé's cover will prompt people to remember and reflect on the civil rights movement, as well as remind them that there is more work to do in the fight for equality.

"As long as there is a single individual on the planet who is not free, then none of us are free," she said.

Beals added that the song and its reference to the Little Rock Nine are especially poignant today, given that several states — including Arkansas— have fought tolimit the teaching of Black history in recent years.

Beals said her books about her experience at Central High School, including Warriors Don't Cry and March Forward, Girl, have also been challenged in schools over the years.

"Blackbird is about the past, today and the future," she said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.