Carlotta Walls Lanier tells her Little Rock story

Carlotta Walls LaNier's memoir helps us arrive at a more textured understanding of the Little Rock integration crisis.

Our son Aidan takes going to school with black, Latino and Asian kids for granted.

While Evanston Township High School, the school at which he is a junior, has major issues in terms of achievement gaps, being in the building together does not appear to be one of them.

It was not always so, of course.  For that change, we must give great thanks to nine African-American families and their children, who in 1957 put their bodies and livelihoods in grave danger to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

A number of books have already been written about and by The Little Rock Nine.  In the 90s, Melba Pattillo Beals wrote Warriors Don’t Cry, her searing memoir of that year.  More recently, Terrence Roberts shared his recollections, while Little Rock native Elizabeth Jacoway has written Turn Away Thy Son, an historian’s look at the year and its subsequent reverberations.

Now Carlotta Walls LaNier has shared her story in A Mighty Long Way, a memoir by the group’s youngest members that adds to our understanding of that turbulent time in several significant ways.

Much of the writing on Little Rock understandably has focused on the build up to the integration that was resisted so bitterly by the city’s white residents and Gov. Orval Faubus and the year itself.   A Mighty Long Way has that information, too.  The early part of the book blends descriptions of Walls’ family that gave her much of the courage she displayed with life in the segregated South that received a major blow with the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education court case in which the Warren Court ruled unanimously that separate schools were inherently unequal.

Then there is the year itself.

Walls gives her take on many of the year’s most important elements: the riots that accompanied the opening day and that saw Elizabeth Eckford alone; the continual and grinding physical, mental and verbal abuse from white students; the chili incident near the December holidays when Minnijean Brown dumped a bowl of chili on a white boy’s head and the black staff in the cafeteria applauded; the toll the year took on the nine students’ families and the strength their siblings, parents and grandparents displayed; the unflagging if complicated support of Daisy Bates; and  the sense of exhausted relief when the year finally ended.

A Mighty Long Way continues the story beyond Ernest Green’s graduation, Roberts’ moving to Los Angeles and the city’s schools being closed the following year to tell what happened when she returned to finish her education.  While the 1959-1960 year did not have as much harassment as the first year, it was by no means a carefree experience.   Classmates still read the permissive signals from teachers and showered Walls with spitballs, phlegm and pencils whenever possible.

Walls also adds nuggets like Eckford’s providing support to another member of the nine by entering the school despite her traumatic first day ordeal.  We learn from her book, too, that there were actually ten black students on the first day of the year, but one, Jane Hill, did not return after the year’s opening day.

Beyond these pieces of information, though, Walls’ story reminds us how deeply the experiences the Little Rock Nine endured stayed with them and the various copious mechanisms they marshaled to deal with the trauma.  After struggling in college and getting married, she moved to Denver, where she did not tell many neighbors what she had been through for 20 years.  Offered in a self-effacing way, this information gives the reader a fuller sense of the year’s toll and a deeper understanding of the contribution these people made to the nation’s moving closer to its stated values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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2 responses to “Carlotta Walls Lanier tells her Little Rock story

  1. Emily Hill Phillips

    I really appreciate your mentioning the excerpts from Walls’ book on the Little Rock Nine. I am the sister of the tenth student Jane Hill, who witnessed my big sister having to attend a series of”desegregation boot camp” meetings to prepare for that eventful day September 4, 1957-only to be robbed by a short sighted govenor of an opportunity to attend her first day of what would turn out to be a historical moment. My mother was the insightful advocate who fervently wanted my sister to be a part of process to integrate Little Rock Central High. My father, I would learn years later, was terrified of losing his job with the railroad and was adamantly opposed to my sister attending Central. I was only six years old at the time, but I can remember being terrified of my sister attending meetings at Daisy Bates home, which had been numerously firebombed. Her home’s beautiful picture windows were boarded up and covered with white iron grates for protection. That image of this horrific war zone like impression is still fresh in my mind, 53 years later. I am sure that all of those students have psychological flashbacks from those meetings.
    I am in the process of compiling information to self-publish a book to record my sister’s contribution to the original Little Rock Ten. I do feel as though she should not be overlooked or lost in history, for she played an essential role and risked her safety as a young student for the sake of this movement.
    If there is any information that others can contribute oral or written
    information about the tenth student “Jane Hill”, I would appreciate
    your contacting me via email: emp1216@gmail.com. (Emily Hill Phillips)
    My sister is now retired and residing in Los Angeles, California with her adult daughter.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Ms. Hill Phillips, for your note, and good luck on the project. I will pass this information onto my wife, Dunreith Kelly Lowenstein, who works for Facing History and Ourselves.

      Jeff

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