- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A MIGHTY LONG WAY: MY JOURNEY TO JUSTICE AT LITTLE ROCK CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL

By Carlotta Walls LaNier with Lisa Frazier Page

Ballantine, $26, 284 pages

Reviewed by John Greenya

I began a recent review with this sentence: “Ever wonder just how much one human being can endure and yet survive?” Had I already read this powerful account of what it was like to be one of the Little Rock Nine, the group of black students who integrated the Little Rock, Ark., Central High School in 1957, I could have used the very same line.

In the first book, “Strength in What Remains,” Tracy Kidder’s re-creation of one young man’s epic struggle to survive the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi in the mid-1990s, the distant time and geographic setting serve to temper the emotional impact of the many horrors the youth experienced. But in this very personal retelling of the horrendous treatment given the nine young people (and their parents and friends), learning the exact details of what happened right here in America is in no way diminished by the passage of time.

I doubt if anyone - except perhaps a die-hard segregationist - will be able to read this book without having to put it down (in order to calm down), not once but often.

In the mid-1950s, when young Carlotta Walls walked to the all-black Dunbar Junior High School, she passed right by Central High School. With the inexorable logic of the young and intelligent, and especially after the Supreme Court’s historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, she saw no reason why, when it came time for her to go to high school, she should have to pass Central High and walk or ride several more miles to attend Dunbar High School.

Carlotta knew that her (brick mason) father and her mother worked as hard as any white couple in town, that they owned their home and paid their taxes as well as all sorts of unseen dues. Her parents had even voted for Gov. Orval E. Faubus because they thought he was “a man of the people.” So why shouldn’t she, who dreamt of becoming a doctor, not be able to take advantage of the best education Little Rock had to offer?

So in the spring of 1957, when her ninth-grade homeroom teacher passed out the sign-up sheet for any interested students who lived within the boundaries of the newly renovated, about-to-reopen Central High, Carlotta quickly wrote down her name. Signing seemed so natural to her that when she got home she forgot to tell her parents. Carlotta knew her parents would support her. What she didn’t know, and could not really have imagined, was the extent of the difficulty and very real danger that lay ahead.

As the first day of school approached, the segregationists in Little Rock mounted a fierce and ultimately vicious resistance equal to that of Bull Connor and his dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, Ala., several years later. Faubus, in an about-face from his previously moderate attitude toward integration, became not just the anti-integrationists’ friend, but also, in effect, their leader. On what was supposed to be the first day of school, Faubus, “the man of the people,” sent the Arkansas National Guard to the school, not with orders to help the students enter, but to keep them out.

Carlotta Walls LaNier sums up what followed: “Arkansas governor Orval Faubus and staunch segregationists throughout Little Rock resisted with all their might. In a show of federal force, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ultimately sent the U.S. military to escort the nine of us, who came to be known around the world [in what was later voted the top news story of 1957] as the Little Rock Nine, to integrate Central High for the first time. White students ostracized and harassed us daily, and many teachers looked the other way. My father lost jobs and had to travel cross-country, sometimes for weeks, to find work.

“Eight of us survived that turbulent first year. But for me, the story did not end there. After Faubus shut down all three of Little Rock’s high schools for the entire school year to avoid integration, just two of the original nine of us returned to Central. I was one of them and that was my senior year. Then, just three months before my graduation, my home was mysteriously bombed, and my father and childhood friend were targeted as suspects by an unjust legal system.

“But I persevered through it all and became the first black girl ever to walk across the stage to receive a diploma from Little Rock Central High School.” (That last sentence is as close as Carlotta Walls LaNier comes to bragging, despite having every right to do so.)

The story of the Little Rock Nine is one of the seminal stories in the shameful history of the struggle for civil rights in America, yet it remains one of those important bits of history that a lot of people know only a little about, myself among them. In every chapter, I learned something I thought I had known already but hadn’t.

The author, with the very skillful help of her co-author Lisa Frazier Page (who must be credited for infusing Carlotta Walls LaNier’s first-person account with just the right amount of anger and indignation, and letting the brutal facts speak for themselves), takes us inside Central High. The reader walks the halls and experiences, vicariously, being hit by gobs of saliva, jostled so books fall to the floor and then being knocked over by the next faceless assailant, feeling her heels being stepped on from behind, day after day, as well as any number of other small indignities that add up to a mountain of hurt.

But Carlotta Walls survived. She did get to college, and she did graduate, but she did not become a doctor. Just as she had feared, the turmoil of her high school years left her with an insufficient grasp of the science courses needed for medical school. Instead, she carved out a successful career in real estate, married Ira LaNier and had two children, and for many years told no one, in print, that she had been one of the Little Rock Nine. Until now.

“A Mighty Long Way” fills an important hole in the historical record.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer and critic.

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