In 1957, Carlotta Walls and eight other black teens integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. They weren't the first students to integrate a Southern public school. They weren't the last. But they were the ones whose story made headlines around the world.
Fifty-two years would pass before Carlotta Walls LaNier would publish her memoir about her experiences with integration. She called it A Mighty Long Way.
1. Starting point: segregation
LaNier begins her memoir with descriptions of her family's history and her life as a little black girl in segregated Little Rock. Her parents and extended family taught her to have pride in herself. They taught her that anyone who tried to make her feel inferior due to her race was ignorant.
Young Carlotta grew up believing that she deserved to be treated with the same respect as anyone else--and that she deserved the same opportunities as anyone else. When the opportunity arose for her to attend Central High School as part of its first integrated class, young Carlotta took that opportunity for a better education.
2. Destination: integration
Standing up against oppression and challenging the status quo came with consequences for the Little Rock Nine, their families, and their community. There were angry mobs of racist white segregationists. The black students faced daily harassment from their classmates. There was violence, too--bombings and mysterious deaths.
Still, Carlotta persevered through it all. She ultimately achieved her goal--a diploma from Central High School.
3. Next stop: adulthood
LaNier's memoir goes beyond her graduation from Central High. She writes about her college experiences, her moves around the country, and her family's flight from Little Rock.
The memoir also fills in some gaps about the other members of her cohort in the Little Rock Nine, as well as other people who were integral to the history. LaNier reflects on the legacy of their integration experiences, which were deeply personal but had a global impact.
4. Are we there yet?
The Little Rock Nine helped to break down barriers that had been in place for generations. The courage and grit of Carlotta and her peers paved the way for the integration of more public schools. Their actions shaped the conversation on race relations in America during the civil rights era.
Although the U.S. has come, to use LaNier's words, "a mighty long way," I believe the country still has a long way to go.
For instance, many public schools are essentially re-segregated now, in fact, if not by law. Students of color do not receive the same opportunities as their white classmates. Students of color--not just black, but Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern--are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs. They are suspended and expelled at much higher rates.
I taught in public middle and high schools in several states. I've worked with students of color who know firsthand that the "school to prison pipeline" isn't just a media catchphrase. These students and their peers are apathetic toward education. As adults, we act surprised that they aren't grateful for the opportunity to learn. How can educators bridge that gap?
5. The next bend in the road
When I was a student in American public schools, we learned about the civil rights movement. However, our study of that period was cursory at best. We saw documentaries about Emmett Till and learned that racism is horrific. But we didn't get the chance to examine the subject from a personal perspective. We didn't explore the further-reaching ramifications of civil rights legislation.
LaNier's book finally gave me that opportunity. And I'm happy to say that her memoir was studied in eighth-grade classrooms all over the Denver area this past academic year.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said,
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
The personal reflection LaNier offers to her readers provides new generations the chance to learn from the past. Then, maybe, people will take action to make informed decisions about the future.