Beyoncé’s ‘Blackbird’ cover ‘awakens so much,’ Little Rock Nine member says


When Melba Pattillo Beals heard Beyoncé sing a line from the Beatles’ “Blackbird” on her new album last week, she was transported back to a morning in September 1957, when she and eight other Black students arrived at an all-White Arkansas school.

You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Beals, a member of the group known as the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School, had loved the 1968 Beatles hit from the first time she heard it — long before she learned in 2016 that her story had inspired it.

The 82-year-old San Francisco resident said hearing Beyoncé’s rendition brought new meaning to the lyrics. As Beals streamed the song released Friday on Beyoncé’s new album, “Cowboy Carter,” she felt empowered knowing that nearly 67 years ago, she helped desegregate schools.

“This song awakens so much,” Beals said.

Beyoncé’s cover is one of several songs on her album that feature Black country music artists who perform in a genre that has long been dominated by White musicians and fans.

Beals said Beyoncé’s “blackbiird” is a meaningful inclusion so many years after Paul McCartney wrote the lyrics based on the Little Rock Nine, who had to be escorted by military personnel as protesters surrounded their new school.

“Paul McCartney said by writing that song, ‘I hear you. I may not be able to rescue you, but I hear you singing in your dark,’” she said.

MacKenzie Green, whose father, Ernest Green, is another member of the Little Rock Nine, called Beyoncé’s cover “one of the coolest things that has ever happened.”

A die-hard Beyoncé fan, MacKenzie was already anticipating the singer’s new album when she saw “blackbiird” on the track list last week. She described her excitement in a TikTok that has received more than 540,000 views.

She woke up at 5:30 a.m. on Friday and listened to “blackbiird,” crying so much that she said she barely heard the lyrics. MacKenzie said she believes Beyoncé’s song will help preserve the Little Rock Nine’s memory.

“Finally, this moment has arrived where they are being embraced and given their flowers,” she said.

The Little Rock Nine made history in 1957, three years after the Supreme Court deemed racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The NAACP recruited nine Black students to integrate Central High, but on what was supposed to be their first day, the Arkansas National Guard blocked them from entering the building.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by ordering members of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the students to and from class later that month. About 350 paratroopers and 80 police officers surrounded the building and contained a screaming mob.

But the nine students continued to be harassed. Beals said students sent flaming paper towels into her bathroom stall. She said a girl once sprayed acid into her eyes with a water gun, and another time, someone tried to throw a knife at her head.

Ernest Green, the lone senior of the Little Rock Nine, graduated in May 1958 with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in attendance, he told NBCUniversal in 2022. The Little Rock Nine attended Central High for one year before Gov. Orval Faubus (D) closed all of Little Rock’s high schools for a year to try to prevent desegregation.

The nine students went their separate ways. Beals moved to Santa Rosa, Calif., to finish high school before starting a career as a journalist. Ernest studied sociology at Michigan State University.

When the Beatles released “Blackbird” in 1968, Beals, who still cried in the middle of the night from her experiences in Little Rock, related to the song’s messages about enduring oppression. The lyrics reminded her of her grandmother, who encouraged her even as classmates threatened her in Little Rock.

Beals thought the song was about Black people’s struggles, but McCartney revealed in 2016 that the Little Rock Nine themselves inspired it.

“This is, to me, where civil rights started,” McCartney said at a concert that year in Little Rock. “We would see what was going on and sympathize with the people going through those struggles, and it made me want to write a song that if it ever got back to the people going through those struggles, it might just help them a little.”

The song has reached a new audience since Beyoncé released her rendition.

Beals, who wrote multiple books about her experiences in Little Rock, said the song’s messages are still relevant as some states have removed Black history courses in schools.

“I can fly wherever I want to fly now,” Beals said. “But what I want is that generation of young people behind me to know the same thing.”


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