If the past year’s events in Ferguson and New York City have taught us anything, it is that racial struggles are not a thing of the past. It is crucial to look back at how far we have come, of course, but doing so is often a reminder that we have a long way to go. First hand accounts of the Civil Rights Era struggles are crucial to fleshing out our understanding.
“A Mighty Long Way,” by Carlotta Walls LaNier, should be required reading for all students—and for all adults who want a deeper awareness of the perspective of those still experiencing racial prejudice. Classroom studies of the true impact of the struggle for racial equality need that personal portrayal of the true trials and prejudices blacks faced during the Civil Rights period… and clearly still face. Taking the concept from the abstract into the highly personal realm makes it more accessible to readers eager to grasp the struggles faced. “A Mighty Long Way” is Ms. LaNier’s first-hand account of one of the most turbulent and significant eras in this country’s struggle for civil rights.
As the youngest of the “Little Rock Nine,” Ms. LaNier documents the emotional and personal side of being one of the famous nine black students to be the first integrated into an all-white school, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was also the first female black student to graduate from that school. Her portrayal of her dedicated family, the nine brave students, and her own anxiety-laced adolescence is heart-wrenching, for the simple reason that Ms. LaNier was nothing more than an ambitious and gifted student, who wanted the best possible education available. She never intended on becoming a symbol of the struggle for racial equality in the very highly-charged Civil Rights era, nor was she comfortable with that role, once it was thrust upon her.
Following the segregation of so many schools in the early years before the Civil Rights Movement, the nine brave children stood against an angry mob of nearly one thousand, all in the attempt to enter the school for an education. The children were eventually escorted in with National Guard protection, certainly not an atmosphere conducive to learning. LaNier prevailed, and went on to graduate from the University of Northern Colorado.
What comes through most vividly in her gripping account is the terrible emotional toll resulting from the injustices inflicted upon her and the other 8 students. It is an eloquent and courageous book, a challenge, certainly for the author to write, but it was infinitely more courageous of her to live it.