Carlotta Walls LaNier Of The Little Rock Nine Gives Interview At Robert H. Jackson Center
We are all standing on the shoulders of others as Americans– culturally, educationally and historically speaking.
That was the message that Carlotta Walls LaNier of the Little Rock Nine so eloquently delivered during an intimate interview at the Robert H. Jackson Center on Monday night.
During the interview, LaNier offered a captivating retelling of her story as a member of the Little Rock Nine, beginning at age 12 in 1954 following the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, to 1999 and beyond, when she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by then President Bill Clinton, the nation’s highest and most distinguished civilian award.
Through the interview, however, her voice was clear and consistent: she never saw herself as a torch-bearer of her race, but she always recognized the importance of a quality education and knew integration was her best opportunity to attain her own.
As aforementioned, LaNier’s story begins in 1954.
At the time, LaNier attended Dunbar Junior-High in Little Rock: an all-black segregated school, students and staff included. She was a dedicated student, involved with extracurricular activities, loved baseball and looked up to Jackie Robinson– one of those pairs of shoulders she herself knew she was standing on, even at the time.
A fervent reader, LaNier enjoyed turning the pages of a children’s newspaper called “The Weekly Reader.” As she read the edition that outlined the decision of Brown v. Board of Education, she believed that big changes were coming soon.
“It emboldened the thought for me, for what my parents had told me all along– that the road to success was through education,” LaNier said. “To read that and to understand what that decision meant was big.”
LaNier thought for sure that the decision, which occurred on May 17, 1954, meant that she would be attending an integrated school in the fall. However, it was not to be– yet.
Word from the Little Rock district superintendent was that the school would abide by the decision, but that it would need time to establish a plan of integration. The plan, as it turned out, was to build two new schools: one one the east side of town and one on the west, where the populations were predominantly black and the other predominantly white, and only integrate one of those schools.
“Even at age 12, I recall thinking that plan was a little silly,” LaNier said. “I thought that, if you were not going to integrate all of the schools, then you really should start with the elementary schools and allow the children to grow up together. I didn’t voice that at the time, but that was what went through my mind.”
After three years, in 1957, the schools were built, and the first meaningful steps toward integration occurred– even if it was only on the end of the still-segregated black students of Little Rock.
In spring of 1957, LaNier’s teacher announced to her class that anyone who lived within a specific set of street boundaries could sign a declaration of intent to attend an integrated Little Rock Central. She said that herself, along with 117 out of 147 eligible students, signed the form.
“When it got to me, I signed the sheet of paper and passed it to the person behind me,” LaNier said. “I didn’t think another thing of it– it was about time, I suppose I thought, but I didn’t even mention it (to my parents) when I got home.”
LaNier said she always rebuffed the notion that she was selected to go to Little Rock Central, but rather that she and the other 116 students elected to go there. But after everything was processed, only 39 of the 117 students were admitted into Little Rock Central.
“I think what took place was that we were checked for our grades, our character, our community involvement, our church going– I call it the Jackie Robinson test,” LaNier said. “I can’t tell you if the NAACP was involved, or if it was strictly a decision of the school board, but maybe that’s how the election part went about. But in the end, 39 of us met with the superintendent.”
When LaNier’s parents were finally privy of her decision to attend Central, they were proud of the initiative she took.
“It was the right choice for me,” LaNier said. “I passed the school every day … it was really all about getting the best education that was available.”
Finally, day one, Sept. 4, 1957, arrived. At this point, the group of students who had committed to following-through with the plan had dropped to nine: LaNier, Melba Pattillo Beals, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, Terrence Roberts and Jefferson Thomas. The group of nine had been instructed the night before to meet at the corner of 13th and Park street, where they would all travel to the school together. However, her family lacking a telephone, Eckford never received the message and ended up taking a bus to the front entrance of the school alone, opposite of where the other eight students were located.
Eckford endured brutal and inhumane taunting, harassment and threats of lynching fueled by unchecked mob mentality, all occurring with the complicity of the National Guard. After being denied entrance into the school, Eckford ran to a bus stop at the end of the block.
Simultaneously, LaNier and the other seven students approached the back of the school, along with Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP and publisher of the Arkansas State Press, along with black and white ministers from the Little Rock Ministerial Alliance. Upon arrival, the commander of the National Guard approached the group.
“He came to a white minister (Ernie Green) and told him that he needed to take these kids back home,” LaNier said. “The commander basically said that (the National Guard) was there to ensure that we couldn’t enter the school. That’s when the ministers took us back to Daisy Bates’ home. From that day forward, we met at her home before and after school.”
Following the failed attempt to enter the school on Sept. 4, then Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall came to Little Rock. After filing an injunction, a federal judge out of Fargo, North Dakota by the name of Ronald Davies ruled that the National Guard could not be used to keep the Little Rock Nine from entering Little Rock Central High School and that Orval Faubus, then Arkansas state governor, must let the students enter.
On Sept. 23, 1957, the Little Rock Nine attempted to enter Little Rock Central for the second time. On this occasion, the group was successful, as they entered through a side door. However, it only lasted a few hours, as the students were escorted out of the school by the police around noon that day.
On the following day, then president Dwight D. Eisenhower did the unprecedented when he deployed the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to assist the Little Rock Nine.
Although some members of the group admired Eisenhower’s decision to send in the military, LaNier stated that she wondered what could have possibly taken him so long to do so.
“It’s about time,” LaNier said. “That’s really how I felt. Some in the group today will say that president Eisenhower was a hero because he sent in the 101st, but my feeling was, ‘what took you so long?’ We all have a different opinion on the matter.”
Through the rest of the year, LaNier endured plenty of taunting and harassment, and the ramifications of her attendance at Central went beyond her and the other members of the Little Rock Nine. The parents of some students were fired from their jobs because of their children’s involvement. The Little Rock Nine were barred from participating in any extracurricular activities at the school, and LaNier’s parents forbade her from driving at all for fear of what could happen. However, at the end of the year, LaNier graduated the 10th grade on the honor roll.
During that summer, LaNier and the Little Rock Nine embarked on a sort of victory lap, visiting cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and New York, In those cities, they were interviewed by distinguished African-American newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, and had the opportunity to meet dignitaries such as the esteemed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Upon returning to Little Rock, they soon learned that their battle was far from over. Still opposed to integration, Gov. Faubus took the nuclear option and closed all schools in the Little Rock School District, rather than abiding by the ruling of the Supreme Court.
At this time, some members of the Little Rock Nine moved to other parts of the country, but LaNier stayed. Along with three other members, she took correspondent classes from the University of Arkansas until the Little Rock Central was opened again.
But even then, struggles against hatred and violence continued. On Feb. 9, 1960, LaNier’s home was bombed. After two weeks of searching unsuccessfully for the culprits, police detained her father and attempted to coerce a confession from him through violence and psychological distress.
“He was kept for 72 hours,” LaNier said. “He was beaten, they were trying to force him to sign that he had bombed his own home so they could close the case. We later found out they wanted to say that he was trying to get insurance due to the fact that he was not working consistently.”
Eventually, two culprits were named, but LaNier still knows to this day they were incorrectly convicted.
Finally, on May 30, 1960, LaNier finished what she started, and graduated from Little Rock Central.
“It validated all that I had gone through,” LaNier said. “All I needed was that sheet of paper, because that was the validation. Those three years of the name calling, the harassment, the being pushed down the steps, the being spit upon, the lockers getting broken into– the sheet of paper meant that much to me.”
LaNier’s diploma now hangs in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture on permanent display.
Following her graduation, LaNier left Little Rock, and self-admittedly ran away from the experience. She spent many years following her graduation without ever talking about what happened, but once she had her own children, she knew they needed to know about her experience.
She has since written “A Mighty Long Way: The Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School,” which narrates her journey as a member of the Little Rock Nine.
Finally, when asked about her legacy at the end of the interview, she returned to the mantra that education is everything and worth seizing at any cost.
“I want kids to know how important an education is,” LaNier said. “What I did was just a piece of this whole story– of the story of this country. I want all kids to know that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. You never know where you are going to end up– but you need to know who you are. My parents instilled that in me from the beginning– that I was just as good as the next person. My attitude from Little Rock Central on (regarding racism) was that’s your problem, not mine. I know who I am and what I can do. I want to see young people take advantage of what is available to them, and make the most of it.”
LaNier is the featured author of the Robert H. Jackson 2017 Young Readers Program that takes place today at the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts. An estimated 1,500 students from 12 area public schools and one private school have registered to attend the event. Additionally, the event will be streamed to all area BOCES vocational schools.