Filmmaker’s visit helps students prepare for conversation with iconic civil rights activist Carlotta Walls LaNier
They championed the right to go to school, 64 years ago, and it was a turning point in desegregation. Now, Grades 7 to 12 students are getting set to welcome Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, the first African-American students at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. LaNier will speak virtually to students, parents, employees and alum on Wednesday, June 9 from 1:00-2:00 p.m., followed by a question-and-answer session.
To prepare for this iconic civil rights activist’s visit, Grades 9-12 students had an exclusive viewing of Little Rock Nine, a History Channel documentary produced by Canadian filmmaker Fern Levitt, June 2.
“I made this film so we can learn from history and ensure it doesn’t repeat itself," Levitt said, fielding questions after the showing of her film. "We have a responsibility to stand up and use our voices if we hope to build a better world.”
Levitt, who is Jewish, says she grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and couldn’t believe the images of the Little Rock Nine she saw on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), of mobs and the abuse the courageous students endured, all to stand up for their right to an education.
“I couldn’t believe this was America, a country known for democracy; those images really stayed in my mind and defined me,” she says.
Levitt described her interviews with LaNier, material that wasn’t included due to the rigours of narrative in a 43-minute film. LaNier had told Levitt that while the school comprised about 2,000 students, there was a core group of 200 actual bullies, and the Little Rock Nine learned to walk close to the lockers so if they were shoved it would hurt less when they fell.
“Carlotta said, ‘What if the 1,800 had stood with us, and defended us and were there for us?’” said Levitt. “‘What if they were not just bystanders, allowing it? What a huge difference it would have made, not just for us but for the school? Very few stood up. Maybe they were afraid, or indifferent. It was us against the world.’”
LaNier was, at age 14, the youngest of the nine courageous African-American students integrated into Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Anger and violent behaviour threatened their safety and motivated President Dwight D. Eisenhower to dispatch the army’s 101st Airborne Division to protect their constitutional rights. She graduated from Little Rock Central High School in 1960 and attended Michigan State University for two years. In 1968, she graduated from the University of Northern Colorado. She was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour by President Bill Clinton in 1999. She also serves as president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation whose mission is to provide financial support for Black students and Black education in the US.
Levitt says her favourite quotation is from 17th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, who wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do absolutely nothing.”
She says, “It encourages me when I see students who are interested in these stories and take them to heart and stand against bigotry in all its forms.”