But when Carlotta Walls LaNier dared to enroll at an elite white high school in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957, she and her eight black classmates extended a fight against intolerance that drew the nation's attention. (The U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling said segregated schools were unconstitutional.)
The black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, are remembered in iconic images. Photographs show federal troops escorting them to the steps of Central High School while mobs of white protesters jeer them.
As compelling as the pictures are, they leave key questions unanswered: What was going through the black students' minds? What happened to them after the troops and reporters left? Did they ever wish they had gone to an all-black school?
It took some 40 years before LaNier, the youngest of the group, could bring herself to answer those questions. The result, "A Mighty Long Way," is as gripping as one might expect.
Some chapters are downright painful to read, as when her home is bombed and a black friend is apparently framed. But she doesn't flinch from detailing what happened, saying it's important to make sure the historical record is accurate.
LaNier and her peers were regularly spat upon, had food thrown at them and were buried beneath an avalanche of N-words. They typically held their heads high and walked silently on.
At one point, when bullies jostle LaNier, a white girl accidentally gets slammed against lockers. Years later she tells LaNier the experience left her terrified and angry. LaNier replies: Imagine feeling that way nearly every minute of every school day.
Yet LaNier went on, refusing to give in.
"I just wanted to go to school and get the best possible education," she writes. "What was so wrong with that?"
Just as some parts of the book are painful to read, others are joyful and uplifting. All nine students went on to have long and successful careers, providing a surprising and gratifying happy ending.
LaNier tells her story with eloquence, dignity and a riveting sense of urgency.
"A Mighty Long Way" provides important context for an important moment in America's history. LaNier and the Little Rock Nine may not be the most famous civil rights figures, but their courage did as much to advance the cause as did the actions of Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.