It took 50 years for Carlotta Walls LaNier to receive an invitation to a class reunion at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, the site of a historic turning point in desegregation in 1957. She was one of nine African-American students escorted daily into school by bodyguards from the 101st Airborne Division on decree of President Eisenhower, to protect them from local mobs outside and racist abuse inside. (The U.S. Supreme Court had declared all laws establishing segregated schools to be unconstitutional in 1954.)
Grade 11 history students Ella, Lauren, Rosie, Kaitlin, Brooke and Alex acted as moderators, with chief moderator, Maria, Branksome’s Student Life Representative, Diversity Council, offering questions for Ms. Walls LaNier’s virtual visit, addressing Grades 7 to 12 students, along with parents, employees and alum, on June 9.
“What difference would it have made if [student] bystanders had acted as allies?” asked one of the moderators, Brooke. Ms. Walls LaNier described the courage necessary to endure daily indignities, including being pushed down stairs and having lockers raided. She carried her books and homework at all times, and brought her own lunch to avoid trouble in the cafeteria.
“I was determined to go and I did go to the reunion,” says Ms. Walls LaNier in reply to Brooke’s question. “I’ll never forget this one couple. The wife welcomed me; she recognized my last name. But her husband was in my class.”
The Little Rock students were spread across the school, so Ms. Walls LaNier was the only African-American student in Grade 9. She described how this man came over and put his hand out and welcomed her, then said they’d exchanged just four words in their time as students together in Geometry class.
“‘You came in with all your books in your arms and dropped your purse and I picked it up and handed it to you and you thanked me and I said ‘you’re welcome,’ this man said,’” recounted Ms. Walls LaNier. “As I flew back home to Denver, I realized he had recognized a missed opportunity for two people to get to know each other, but he didn’t because of the environment he would have [been subjected to]—harassment and name-calling and phone calls late at night; that’s what happened to the other white kids who were trying to be helpful to us.”
Acting as chief moderator, Maria noted that, “We understand it was a different climate, but people greatly underestimate how much of a difference it can make for one person to say, ‘Back off.’”
Ms. Walls LaNier told of how proud and surprised her parents were when she told them she’d registered to attend Little Rock. “All I wanted was access to the best education; for me it was a no brainer,” she said. Despite being head cheerleader and head of the basketball team at her previous school, a condition of the Nine’s acceptance to Little Rock was that they were forbidden from participating in extra-curriculars. Nevertheless, a biology teacher who looked out for Ms. Walls LaNier allowed her to participate in the Science Fair, and she won third prize. He had to accept the prize for her.
Their courage and perseverance took a huge toll on the Nine’s families. Ms. Walls LaNier described how her mother, only in her early 30s “grayed,” and her father would continually lose his job when employers found out about his daughter. He’d leave for weeks at a time, working out of state.
Although the group became fast friends and are still in touch, it wasn’t until the 30th anniversary of the events that they all got together for the first time, and it took decades to realize how integral their activism had been to the nascent civil rights movement. In 2009, a group of university students persuaded Ms. La Nier to write her memoir, A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.
Moderator Alex asked how this iconic activist suggests students today can participate in activism for equality. Ms. Walls La Nier had this to say:
“Find out where your passion lies. Mine was wanting the best education available and I stuck with it. Determine what you want to get behind, what you’re most interested in.”
Filmmaker Fern Levitt, producer of the documentary, The Little Rock Nine
, which students previewed last week
, also attended, and the bond she shares with Ms. Walls LaNier, as a friend and her first film subject, is proud of her legacy of educating students about this epic moment of progress.
“I want future generations to realize the extraordinary courage it took to cross the racial barrier,” she said. “When I first saw those images, this blanket of hatred against students trying to go to school, I promised myself to use my camera and voice to stand up for injustice and hate whenever I can. It continues to be an honour and privilege to tell this story.”