Being One of the Little Rock Nine

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 16, 2009 | Go to article overview

Being One of the Little Rock Nine


Byline: John Greenya, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

I began a recent review with this sentence: Ever wonder just how much one human being can endure and yet survive? Had I already read this powerful account of what it was like to be one of the Little Rock Nine, the group of black students who integrated the Little Rock, Ark., Central High School in 1957, I could have used the very same line.

In the first book, Strength in What Remains, Tracy Kidder's re-creation of one young man's epic struggle to survive the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi in the mid-1990s, the distant time and geographic setting serve to temper the emotional impact of the many horrors the youth experienced. But in this very personal retelling of the horrendous treatment given the nine young people (and their parents and friends), learning the exact details of what happened right here in America is in no way diminished by the passage of time.

I doubt if anyone - except perhaps a die-hard segregationist - will be able to read this book without having to put it down (in order to calm down), not once but often.

In the mid-1950s, when young Carlotta Walls walked to the all-black Dunbar Junior High School, she passed right by Central High School. With the inexorable logic of the young and intelligent, and especially after the Supreme Court's historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, she saw no reason why, when it came time for her to go to high school, she should have to pass Central High and walk or ride several more miles to attend Dunbar High School.

Carlotta knew that her (brick mason) father and her mother worked as hard as any white couple in town, that they owned their home and paid their taxes as well as all sorts of unseen dues. Her parents had even voted for Gov. Orval E. Faubus because they thought he was a man of the people. So why shouldn't she, who dreamt of becoming a doctor, not be able to take advantage of the best education Little Rock had to offer?

So in the spring of 1957, when her ninth-grade homeroom teacher passed out the sign-up sheet for any interested students who lived within the boundaries of the newly renovated, about-to-reopen Central High, Carlotta quickly wrote down her name. Signing seemed so natural to her that when she got home she forgot to tell her parents. Carlotta knew her parents would support her. What she didn't know, and could not really have imagined, was the extent of the difficulty and very real danger that lay ahead.

As the first day of school approached, the segregationists in Little Rock mounted a fierce and ultimately vicious resistance equal to that of Bull Connor and his dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, Ala., several years later. Faubus, in an about-face from his previously moderate attitude toward integration, became not just the anti-integrationists' friend, but also, in effect, their leader. On what was supposed to be the first day of school, Faubus, the man of the people, sent the Arkansas National Guard to the school, not with orders to help the students enter, but to keep them out.

Carlotta Walls LaNier sums up what followed: "Arkansas governor Orval Faubus and staunch segregationists throughout Little Rock resisted with all their might. …

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