A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School

A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School

4.4 15
by Carlotta Walls Lanier, Lisa Frazier Page
     
 

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"When fourteen-year-old Carlotta Walls walked up the stairs of Little Rock Central High School on September 25, 1957, she and eight other black students only wanted to make it to class. But the journey of the "Little Rock Nine," as they came to be known, would lead the nation on an even longer and much more turbulent path, one that would challenge prevailing

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Overview

"When fourteen-year-old Carlotta Walls walked up the stairs of Little Rock Central High School on September 25, 1957, she and eight other black students only wanted to make it to class. But the journey of the "Little Rock Nine," as they came to be known, would lead the nation on an even longer and much more turbulent path, one that would challenge prevailing attitudes, break down barriers, and forever change the landscape of America." "Descended from a line of proud black landowners and businessmen, Carlotta was raised to believe that education was the key to success. She embraced learning and excelled in her studies at the black schools she attended throughout the 1950s. With Brown v. Board of Education erasing the color divide in classrooms across the country, the teenager volunteered to be among the first black students - of whom she was the youngest - to integrate nearby Central High School, considered one of the nation's best academic institutions." "But for Carlotta and her eight comrades, simply getting through the door was the first of many trials. Angry mobs of white students and their parents hurled taunts, insults, and threats. Arkansas's governor used the National Guard to bar the black students from entering the school. Finally, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to send in the 101st Airborne to establish order and escort the Nine into the building. That was just the start of a heartbreaking three-year journey for Carlotta, who would see her home bombed, a crime for which her own father was a suspect and for which a friend of Carotta's was ultimately jailed - albeit wrongly, in Carlotta's eyes. But she persevered to the victorious end: her graduation fromCentral." Breaking her silence at last and sharing her story for the first time, Carlotta Walls has written an inspiring, thoroughly engrossing memoir that is not only a testament to the power of one to make a difference but also of the sacrifices made by families and communities that found themselves a part of history. Complete with compelling photographs of the time, A Mighty Long Way shines a light on this watershed moment in civil rights history and shows that determination, fortitude, and the ability to change the world are not exclusive to a few special people but are inherent within us all.

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Editorial Reviews

Kevin Boyle
As I read this simple, powerful memoir…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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

At 14, Lanier was the youngest of the "Little Rock Nine," who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1951; she went on to become the first African -American young woman to receive a diploma from the school. Her memoir provides a firsthand account of a seismic shift in American history. She recalls the well-reported violence outside the school and daily harassment and ineffective protection from teachers and guards. Away from school, the Nine were honored and feted, but their parents found their jobs-even their lives-in jeopardy. Lanier's house was bombed, and a childhood friend, Herbert Monts, was falsely accused and convicted. Monts's account of his experiences, shared with Lanier, 43 years later, is historically newsworthy. Lanier's recollections of family history and her relatively pedestrian experiences after high school graduation (graduate school, job hunting, marrying, finding her new home in Denver) lack the drama of her historical moment. In a sense, Lanier didn't make history, history made her. Her plainspoken report from the front line is, nevertheless, a worthy contribution to the history of civil rights in America. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
Much has been written about the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957–58, but LaNier—youngest of the Little Rock Nine—offers a different perspective as a student who was eager for a good education but never really wanted to be at the center of such a momentous event. Facing abuse from white students, she also avoided the press and shunned attention from supporters. While many of the Little Rock Nine ended up attending school elsewhere, following the closing of all Little Rock high schools for the 1958–59 school year by Governor Faubus, LaNier returned for her senior year. She survived the bombing of her home, graduated from Central, and left Little Rock intending never to look back (she lives with her family in Colorado and founded a real estate brokerage firm). VERDICT With honest clarity, LaNier acknowledges what Little Rock's African Americans lost because of Central's integration: secure jobs, a strong sense of community, and the special commitment of the well-qualified teachers at black schools. Not until 50 years later was LaNier able to confront her past and embrace her role in civil rights history. An engaging and moving book; highly recommended.—Kathryn Stewart, Proquest/Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Kirkus Reviews
Well-crafted look at the wrenching experience of the youngest of the "Little Rock Nine."In the fall of 1957, three years after Brown v. Board of Education ordered the desegregation of all U.S. public schools, 14-year-old Carlotta Walls (now LaNier) signed up to be among the first black students at previously all-white Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. This naive, earnest decision would affect every facet of her life, as well as the lives of her family and neighbors. Coached and encouraged by the local NAACP branch, ten students attempted to attend Central High, only to be turned back by an ugly mob and the Arkansas National Guard, dispatched to encircle the school by staunch segregationist Gov. Orval Faubus. As lawsuits pressed by Thurgood Marshall and other civil-rights lawyers were pursued, President Eisenhower dispatched federal paratroopers to avoid "anarchy" and accompany each of the nine students (one had given up) to their classes. "Getting inside Central was just the beginning," remembers the author; now she faced "a brand new struggle: finding a way to survive." The daily abuse, both verbal and physical, caused intense stress; LaNier's memoir vividly depicts the students' and their families' blistering struggles. Faubus illegally closed down all the area high schools during the '58-59 school year ("the Lost Year"), and the violence worsened; Walls' home was bombed. She left Little Rock for college and a career, loath even to mention her involvement for many years. Finding her voice, as she notes, came much later, and this hindsight account suggests that the nation still has not achieved closure about the painful events at Little Rock. Keenly observed and moving. Agent:Linda Loewenthal/David Black Literary Agency
From the Publisher
“This hindsight account suggests that the nation still has not achieved closure about the painful events at Little Rock….Keenly observed and moving.” —Kirkus Reviews

“This is a marvelous book.  It is a personal account that describes a moving period in the transformative struggle for civil rights and social justice in America.  Above all, this story is an inspiration.  Through it all, Carlotta Lanier and her fellow students never gave up.  They never gave in.  They kept the faith and because of their dignity, their tenacity, and their sacrifice they helped to redeem the soul of America.” –Congressman John Lewis

“Carlotta Walls LaNier’s memoir, A Mighty Long Way, is a searing and emotionally gripping account of a young black girl growing up to become a strong black woman during the most difficult time of racial segregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. The book is a page-turner and a tear-jerker, discussing the struggle and progress of an individual, and reflecting the historic challenges African Americans face in overcoming racial segregation. This book is a must read and should be required reading for every child of every race who may be trying to appreciate the values of education and the challenges that they might present for people who are different. We learn more about the struggles of the students of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas than is imagined, and it will change the way we evaluate the courage and dignity of people like Carlotta Walls LaNier.” –Professor Charles Ogletree, Harvard Law School

“A half-century later, other young Americans draw their inspiration from Carlotta Walls.  I am proud that she continues to carry the torch in the struggle for civil rights and to share her story of individual and collective courage with America’s young people.  Through her experiences of fifty years ago until today, she continues to challenge Americans about the true meaning of equal access to education for all.” –Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe

“Carlotta Walls LaNier was the youngest of the Little Rock 9 to cross the color lines, political barriers and cultural chasms that circumscribed her life. She, her family and friends paid a heavy price that burdened them even as it liberated all of us. Her memoir, which is really our memoir, provides a rare perspective on that history in the making.” – Hank Klibanoff, Pulitzer Prize winning co-author of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of the Nation

“In A Mighty Long Way, this revered American and special friend boldly tells how her high school days have evolved as the central experience of her life.  I commend Carlotta for the legacy she has left and for the lessons she and her colleagues have taught us all with such nobility.”   – Nancy Rousseau, Principal, Little Rock Central High School (2002 — present)

“Gripping…A moving, very personal account of the aftermath of the 1954 Brown decision that began the painful process of desegregation.—Booklist

“There is a quiet majesty to A Mighty Long Way. The telling of this journey is imbued with sweep, tenderness, and the sustained glory of memory.” –Wil Haygood, author of In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780345511003
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/25/2009
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
1,321,645
Product dimensions:
6.48(w) x 9.62(h) x 1.07(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Different World

For the longest time, I wanted nothing more to do with Little Rock. After leaving in 1960, I returned only when necessary, usually for funerals. But my work as president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation brings me home often these days, and I inevitably wend my way down Interstate 630 to my old neighborhood. Most often, I go there to see Uncle Teet, who still lives in my great-great grandfather Hiram Holloway’s old house, five houses down from the one where I grew up. But every now and then, I pull up alongside the redbrick bungalow at 15th and Valentine streets, park the car, and get out.

This was the center of my world as a child. The place looks abandoned with its boarded-up windows and weeds where lush green grass used to grow. There is no sign of the big gardenia bush that once graced the front yard. Mother would pick a fresh flower from that bush and place it in her hair just so, like Billie Holiday. But the gardenias are long gone. So, too, is the tree in the backyard that used to grow the plumpest, sweetest figs around. The pecan tree still stands, and as I picked up a few dried nuts one scorching summer day, I was reminded of the lean Christmas in junior high school when that tree provided perfect homemade gifts for most of my family and friends. Money was tight that year, so I made date-nut cakes from the bounty in our backyard to give away as presents. There were three of those huge trees, perfectly aligned in a row from our yard to the Davises’ yard next door to the other Davis property down the street. So, of course, someone in the neighborhood was always making homemade pecan ice cream or baking pecan pies or some kind of nut cookies or cake.

I’m amazed at how small it all seems now—our house, the yard, and even those pecan trees, which to a little girl staring up seemed just a few steps from heaven. I still call the place “our house,” as if it remains in my family. But Mother finally sold it several years ago when the upkeep became too much and I convinced her that none of her three girls would ever return. She was reluctant at first to let go. The memories, I guess. And our family roots—they run pretty deep through there.

I was three years old when Daddy bought the house at 1500 S. Valentine Street, just blocks away from the all-white Central High School. Even then, the school was known throughout the country for its Greek-inspired architecture, beauty, and high academic achievement. Daddy had just returned from the Philippines, where he served in World War II until December 1945. Mother was weary of having moved with me at least four times, mostly among relatives, while he was away. My parents paid $3,000 for the house, sold to them by my mother’s grandfather, Aaron Holloway, who had raised her practically all of her life after his daughter moved away to St. Louis.

Papa Holloway, as I knew my great-grandfather, looked like a Spaniard with his tan skin, dark eyes, thick, wavy black hair, and mustache. I’m told that in his younger days, his hair would sprout into a nest of thick black curls—and thus the source of his nickname among some of our neighbors: Curly. He stood about six feet tall, and family members say that I—tall and slender as a child—inherited his height and thin build. I probably inherited some of his other characteristics, too, like my hair, which is naturally pretty wavy. When I was a child, it grew like weeds, so long and thick that I had trouble grooming it, and Mother had to plait it into neat braids or pull it into ponytails until I was well into junior high school. I wasn’t allowed to get my first haircut until eighth grade, and I’ve mostly kept it short ever since.

The Spanish roots in my family tree can be traced back to Papa Holloway’s father, Hiram. I never knew him, but in recent years I’ve read interviews he granted to federal workers in the 1930s for a collection of ex-slave narratives as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Hiram was described in the report as a “tri-racial free person of color,” born in 1848, about thirteen years before the Civil War. He said in a transcript of the interview that his mother was a “full-blooded Cherokee” and his father a “dark Spaniard.” He used the N-word liberally as he talked about the Africans who were enslaved. That word still stings when I see or hear it, but

I’ve tried to refrain from harsh judgment of my great-great- grandfather, even as he set himself apart from the slaves. As difficult as some parts of his story were to digest, the interview re-

minded me just how much my ancestors endured in their pursuit of education, generations before I ever stepped foot onto Central.

“In slave times, they didn’t have any schools for niggers,” said Hiram, who managed to learn to read and write. “Niggers better not be caught with a book. If he were caught with a book, they beat him to death nearly. Niggers used to get hold of this Webster’s Blue Back Book and the white folks would catch them and take them away. They didn’t allow no free niggers to go to school either in slave times.”

Hiram’s story gave me fresh insight into how much my family valued education even then. He expressed disappointment that the younger generation of blacks—those born after the Civil War—didn’t seem as persistent as their forefathers in the quest for education. His words are still relevant; they capture some of my concerns today:

“One thing, they don’t read enough,” he said. “They don’t know history. I can’t understand them. Looks like they had a mighty good chance; but it looks like the more they get the worse they are. Looks like to me their parents didn’t teach them right—or somethin’.”

Although Hiram referred repeatedly in the interview to his wife and children, little is known about most of them in our family. I once asked Papa Holloway about his brothers and sisters. He told me he had several siblings but that he knew the whereabouts of only one, a sister, Maude, who lived in Cleveland. He said that he suspected his other brothers and sisters were scattered throughout the country and passed as white. But Papa Holloway identified himself as “colored” and was proud of the status he achieved as one of the first colored building contractors in Arkansas. He helped to build houses throughout Arkansas, including many of the higher-end homes in the wealthy white Pulaski Heights neighborhood in Little Rock. He also built White Memorial Methodist Church, just up the street from my house. Much of my family worshipped there. Papa was on the board of trustees, a real mover and shaker who was there practically every time the doors of the church opened. Most Sundays, I sat beside him on the front pew.

Papa’s wife, Mary, died in 1922 at age thirty-four while giving birth to their sixteenth child. The baby girl died, too, as did a set of twins who had been born earlier. Papa raised the remaining children and never married again. His oldest son, Hugh, would become one of only two black men who worked as skilled laborers on Central High School when it was built. Papa’s longtime girlfriend, Dora Holmes, was a widow who lived down the street and owned the house at 1500 S. Valentine Street. Mother and I stayed with her briefly while my father was away at war. How much of my memory of Mrs. Holmes is influenced by family stories, I don’t know. But I remember being terrified of her. She dressed like a witch or a woman on the frontier, in long black cotton dresses and black high-top boots. I didn’t realize then that she may have been trying to cover a prosthetic leg.

On some Sunday mornings, my paternal grandfather, Big Daddy, would drop me off at Mrs. Holmes’s house after I had spent the weekend with him. As soon as we approached the house, I’d start screaming and hollering that I didn’t want to go. I’d fall out, kicking and wailing, on the front porch. But when the front door opened silently, I saw from the corner of my eyes those high-top boots and the hem of her long black dress moving toward me. I immediately turned off the tears, rose to my feet, and followed Mrs. Holmes inside as though I had some sense.

When Dora Holmes died, she left her estate in the care of Papa Holloway, who offered the house to my father. None of us could have imagined then how much that address would dictate the course of our lives in the years ahead. The house was located just west of downtown Little Rock, a few miles beyond 9th Street, which was then a bustling strip of black-owned businesses and nightspots. The community surrounding 9th Street was all black. My end of town was more racially mixed—black families lived on one block, whites on the other. In some cases, black and white families lived across the street from one another. But our white neighbors may as well have been living on Mars for all we knew of their lives. When my family moved there, the neighborhood was still new. Most of the houses were box-shaped with wooden frames, built along a grid of narrow dirt roads after World War II. They were modest but well kept. A few had porches, and most had small yards, though they didn’t seem small then. Our house stood out because Daddy, who earned a living as a brick mason, meticulously covered it from top to bottom with the same red bricks that remain on the house today. The only other brick house in the neighborhood belonged to Papa Holloway.

Daddy had learned the brick masonry trade from his father-in-law, Med Cullins, a master contractor who did brick masonry work on Central High in the 1940s. Grandpa Cullins, my mother’s father, was a real character. He was a big, imposing man who stood over six feet tall with a heavyset frame, a gravelly voice, and a gruff disposition that matched his size. His beige skin and straight hair gave him the appearance of a slightly tanned white man. He walked with his shoulders squared and head high and carried a half-pint of liquor stuffed in his back pocket. He also couldn’t finish a sentence without at least one “goddamn.” Grandpa was his own man. He had one suit and wore mismatched socks, but he considered those kinds of things trivial. When I met Thurgood Marshall in later years, his aura reminded me in an odd way of Grandpa Cullins. Neither man kowtowed to anyone. Confidence seemed to radiate from them both, but the likeness ended there.

Grandpa Cullins had an intimidating—and sometimes crude—presence, which worked to his advantage when it came time to collect from someone who had hired him to do a job. He could be less than forgiving on money matters, even if the delinquent client was a house of worship.

“Your father just embarrassed the heck out of me,” I heard my father tell Mother one Sunday afternoon when I was in junior high school after the two men returned from a church service in a nearby town.

Grandpa Cullins had asked Daddy to drive him to the church. But as the service wound to a close, the pastor made the mistake of recognizing my grandfather to say a few words. Grandpa Cullins strolled to the front, told the congregants what a pretty goddamn church they had, but he reminded them that he was still waiting for his money.

Grandpa was not a patient man. He called every man “son” and every woman “daughter,” including his own children and grandchildren, who say he did so because he didn’t want to bother remembering any names.

“Daughter, let me speak to daughter,” he commanded one day when I answered the phone at home.

I looked at Mother and her sister and responded: “Which one?”

“Goddammit,” Grandpa barked. “The one who lives there!”

Grandpa Cullins had dropped out of Philander Smith College in Little Rock to start his contracting business, but he was a highly intelligent man who stayed abreast of current events. He’d insisted that his four children—Mother, her younger brother, and two older sisters—go to college. The schools of choice were Philander Smith or Talledega College in Alabama. Grandpa loved politics, particularly presidential history. Many times, I heard him start with Truman and work his way back, reciting the years each president served, the president’s party, and something significant about each man’s time in office. But when Grandpa got to Taylor, he always said, “And next is that goddamn Zachariah Taylor. . . .”

At first, I didn’t understand what he meant, so I asked: “What’s wrong with Zachary Taylor?”

“That’s Sam Mumford’s grandfather,” Grandpa Cullins responded, referring to his good friend and fellow contractor.

“Oh, Grandpa, you know a president wouldn’t marry a colored woman,” I shot back.

He looked at me with a sly grin. “Whoever said anything about getting married?”

Grandpa Cullins never married my mother’s mother. Mother was born to Erma Holloway while he was separated from his wife, Beatrice. He and Beatrice reunited, and soon afterward my maternal grandmother moved away to St. Louis and left Mother with Papa Holloway. I knew Beatrice as Grandmother Cullins and her children as my aunts and uncles. Mother and her siblings never thought of themselves as half of anything. We’ve always just been family. Grandmother Cullins was fifty-five when she died of stomach cancer in 1951.

All of my grandfathers outlived their wives. While I was nurtured by a cadre of well-educated and loving women, I spent a lot of time around the men on both sides of my family. And they heavily influenced the woman I became. The independent streak that I’m sure I inherited from my grandfathers would land me at Central in the days ahead, and the determination I witnessed in all of their lives would help me survive the toughest days there.

No one was more determined than my Big Daddy. He was Porter Walls, my father’s father. He had mahogany skin and a medium build and stood about five feet five inches tall, on the short side for a man. He had only a third-grade education, but he could read and write and was one of the smartest businessmen I’ve ever known. He owned and operated a pool hall and restaurant in a red cinder-block building that extended about a half block at the intersection of 18th and Pine streets, a short walk from my house. Big Daddy enjoyed looking like a businessman, so his preferred attire was a suit and hat when he wasn’t in the kitchen. He also smoked cigars.

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