Too Young to Bear This Burden
A MIGHTY LONG WAY
My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School
By Carlotta Walls LaNier, with
Lisa Frazier Page
284 pp. $26
A few weeks ago my younger daughter started high school. My wife and I stood in front of our house watching her march up the block, a whippet-thin 14- year-old dressed in the outfit she'd picked out weeks before, weighed down by her overstuffed backpack and the nagging fear that she wouldn't remember her locker number. A little girl, the same age Carlotta Walls LaNier had been on the day she began high school in Little Rock, Ark. 52 years ago, the day she walked through a mob of racists so rabid they would have killed her given half a chance.
LaNier was the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, whose terrifying experience at Central High in September 1957 became one of the civil rights movement's most pivotal moments. In the mid-1950s Little Rock officials decided that, rather than fight the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, they would voluntarily desegregate the city schools. After several years of careful planning, the school superintendent hand-picked nine African American teenagers he thought particularly well-suited to the dangerous job of breaking the color line at all-white Central, Little Rock's most prestigious public high school.
As she makes clear in her affecting new memoir (written with The Washington Post's Lisa Frazier Page), LaNier took on the assignment with a 14-year-old's naiveté. She thought she had been selected simply because she filled out a form in her ninth-grade home room. She imagined herself settling into Central High, making new friends, going to football games, maybe even joining the cheerleading squad. Not until Sept. 3, the day before school was to start, did she realize that something was wrong.
That's when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus -- playing to the segregationist vote -- announced that he was calling out the National Guard to block the African American students' entry into the school. On the first day of class 400 whites jammed the streets around Central, screaming racial epithets as the Nine walked stone-faced up to the line of guardsmen, who turned them away. "I was completely stunned," says LaNier, not because she was suddenly at the center of a constitutional crisis -- that thought didn't cross her mind -- but because she'd never missed a day of school in her life.
For two weeks the crisis festered, until a federal judge ordered Faubus to withdraw the troops. On Sept. 23 the Nine tried again. This time there were a thousand people on the streets -- and no guardsmen to maintain order. The Little Rock police managed to slip the teenagers into Central through a side door. But that only enraged the mob. Fearing that the crowd would soon storm the school, officials decided that the black students had to be removed. Three hours into their first day, they were hustled into the back seats of two patrol cars, told to keep their heads down, and sped home. Only then did the Eisenhower administration decide that defiance of federal power would not be tolerated. The following morning the 101st Airborne escorted the Little Rock Nine into Central High.
But LaNier's ordeal had barely begun. For the remaining three years of her high school career, she and her family endured constant harassment and abuse, much of it petty -- one white student delighted in following LaNier down the hall, stepping on her heels -- some of it stunningly vicious. In the memoir's most moving passages, LaNier describes the burdens of those years, as an ebullient teenager stoically marching through long, hard, lonely days, dutifully suppressing the seething anger she had been told never to express, desperately waiting for her life at Central -- the life she'd once dreamed of having -- to end. She graduated on May 30, 1960. The next day, she left Little Rock forever.
"A Mighty Long Way" isn't a tragic story. After almost 30 years of silence, LaNier gradually started to talk about the experiences of the Little Rock Nine. Now she's one of the group's outspoken members, a symbol of the courage it took to crack the Southern system of segregation. As I read this simple, powerful memoir, though, I couldn't stop thinking of my own 14-year-old -- and grieving for that other little girl heading off to school half a century ago.
Kevin Boyle teaches history at Ohio State University. His book "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age" received the National Book Award for nonfiction.