67 pages 2 hours read

Carlotta Walls LaNier, Lisa Frazier Page

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

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Middle Grade | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School is a 2009 memoir by Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine. It details LaNier’s experience as one of the first nine Black students to attend the formerly all-white Little Rock Central High School. It was co-written by Lisa Frazier Page, an award-winning Washington Post editor. In 2002, Page co-authored The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream with Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt. The Pact tells the story of Davis, Jenkins, and Hunt’s pact to transcend the systemic anti-Black racism they face in their community and become medical doctors.

In addition to the Little Rock Nine’s integration fight, LaNier’s narrative discusses growing up in the Jim Crow-era South, her life after Central, and her reconnection with the other eight members of the nine in adulthood. As such, her memoir also functions as a bildungsroman or coming-of-age narrative. Her narrative stresses the importance of educational integration, the racial trauma experienced because of the systemic racism left by legacies of enslavement, and the power and resilience of Black people in the face of this oppression. She gives valuable insight into how a young person experienced the events of the American Civil Rights Movement. 

LaNier has received many awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, the National Shining Star Award, and the Lincoln Leadership Prize. She is a member of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She has four honorary doctorates, including an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from her alma mater Colorado State College, re-named University of Northern Colorado in 1970.

This study guide refers to the 2009 hardback edition by One World Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House.

Content Warnings: The source text contains racial slurs used against LaNier and her peers, as well as historical racism, racial violence, and outdated terms for Black people. This study guide quotes and obscures the author’s use of the n-word. This study guide preserves LaNier’s use of the lower-case “b” to refer to Black people and communities in the quoted text while capitalizing it in the guide itself.


LaNier is descended from two lines of Black Arkansan families: her father, Cartelyou “Daddy” Walls, and his father, Porter “Big Daddy” Walls, on one side, and her mother, Juanita “Mother” Walls, and her father, Med, or “Grandpa Cullins.” LaNier is very close to both her immediate and extended families and often goes to work alongside Daddy and Big Daddy as a child. They all enjoy baseball and road trip together to see Dodgers away games in St. Louis, staying at family members’ houses along the way. LaNier doesn’t realize these out-of-state trips stem from Jim Crow-era segregation until she visits her aunt and uncle in New York at age eight. There, she experiences life without racial segregation for the first time. The other small taste of integration she gets is at home in Little Rock during the summers, where both Black and white neighborhood children play pickup softball together.

LaNier is in sixth grade when Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is decided. Two years later, she signs up to attend the previously all-white high school, Central. She and her friend Gloria are turned away on registration day and told to come back later with their parents for a meeting. As they leave the building, they meet Mrs. Daisy Bates, who becomes their mentor and advisor. At the meeting, Superintendent Blossom tells the students they cannot participate in any extracurriculars, and he warns the boys to stay away from white girls. After the meeting, only 10 students decide to attend.

The night before the first day of school, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus makes a speech fearmongering about the “forcible integration” of Central. When the students go to school the next day, a white mob of segregationists has formed at the gates, and Faubus has ordered the Arkansas National Guards to keep the 10 Black students out. Following this, one student decides not to return to Central, leaving nine. While the “Little Rock Nine” are blocked from attending school, Mrs. Bates of the Arkansas NAACP runs an expert media campaign to garner awareness. Thurgood Marshall is called to represent the nine in court and wins his case.

On their first day back at school, the nine need to be taken out part-way through the day due to the increasing violence of the mob outside. President Eisenhower sends a division of the army to protect the nine and divests control of the Arkansas National Guard from Faubus. The military quells the mob and protects the nine from the worst of the violence, though they still face physical, verbal, and emotional abuse from their white peers in school throughout the year.

That summer, the nine go to many places through the Midwest and East, receiving awards and meeting celebrities. LaNier realizes how important the story of the Little Rock Nine’s fight for integration is to the nation. Faubus fights to halt integration through several court cases and appeals and loses. Instead, he uses his gubernatorial powers to shut down every public high school in Little Rock for the academic year. Mrs. Bates organizes for LaNier and other Black teenagers to be hosted by sympathetic families in other states so they can attend school. Despite this, LaNier’s education suffers. She must do two rounds of summer school after both her junior and senior years to make up for lost credits.

When school at Central resumes in LaNier’s senior year, she is determined to prove the segregationists wrong by becoming the first Black teenage girl to graduate from Central. Halfway through the year, her house is bombed. Daddy and two others are falsely accused of the crime and beaten by the FBI. The other two men are coerced into false confessions, and lengthy court battles ensue, falsely convicting them. After this trauma, LaNier graduates and immediately leaves Little Rock for Michigan State. The rest of her family shortly follows.

LaNier struggles at Michigan State. She eventually drops out and moves to Denver to work at a telephone company. After many years, she graduates from Colorado State College. Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, she experiences both joy and loss: She gets married and has two children, but both Grandpa Cullins and Daddy die, and many civil rights leaders are assassinated.

LaNier spends her adult life trying to forget about Central; she doesn’t tell her husband or friends that she was part of the Little Rock Nine. For the 30th anniversary of their integration fight, the nine are invited back to Central as guests of the NAACP. LaNier realizes she must confront and reconcile herself with her past. She also reunites with the other members of the Little Rock Nine and vows to stay in touch with them. She begins taking speaking engagements, and though they are painful, she believes her story is necessary. She and the other eight begin the Little Rock Nine Foundation to continue their legacy.

LaNier’s narrative ends with the election of President Barack Obama, which she sees as an incredible jump in equity from the events only 50 years before when she and her eight peers had to be escorted into school by armed guards.

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