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.
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.