I often read about the 1950s, a time when I was too young to realize what was going on around me. As I do, I discover a new world quite different from the one I thought I grew up in. For instance, at the close of 1957, the Associated Press ranked the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas as the year's top national story - above the passage of a Civil Rights Act and President Eisenhower's heart attack. I do not remember ever hearing about this conflict when I was in school in the 1960s and 1970s. (My school did not integrate until fall 1965, and if there was a protest, I missed it.)
Were the events in Little Rock forgotten (suppressed) for several decades? According to Carlotta Walls LaNier in A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School, integration in the Arkansas capital was not commemorated in any way until its thirtieth anniversary. LaNier was a member of the Little Rock Nine, first group of blacks to enter Central High, and she admits that she too wanted to forget. For years she did not even tell friends or even her children that she had been involved. She discouraged reporters seeking interviews. Why stew on the past? Some of her memories were terrible, and she just wanted to move on with her life. In time, however, she found that denying her part was holding her back from reconciliation, and when she spoke to a friend's class, none of who had heard the story, she discovered a calling.
In A Mighty Long Way, LaNier recounts the three years that she endured cold stares, heckling, and jostling by hostile white students, but she does not dwell on the conflict. She concentrates on describing the support network that kept her aimed at getting her degree from the previously all-white school. She tells about the stoic parents, resourceful community leaders, and fair-minded teachers who sacrificed their own comfort and safety to help. She also reveals that three years at Central High were not really three years. Governor Faubus shut all the Little Rock high schools down in LaNier's junior year in any effort to lease them to private interests to get around federal integration law. LaNier had to take correspondence courses and spend a couple of months in school in Cleveland to get credits for graduation.
LaNier is not the first of the Little Rock Nine to write. Melba Beals has written vividly about the troubles she endured in her long year at Central High in Warriors Don't Cry. Together the authors help restore a chapter in history that some would still have us forget.
LaNier, Carlotta Walls. A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School. One World Books, 2009. ISBN 9780345511003.