Magazine Feature

Member of ‘Little Rock Nine’ describes painful segregation experience

The Little Rock Nine are marched into Central High School by U.S. troops sent to the school by President Eisenhower. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army.

Carlotta Walls LaNier knows segregation firsthand — she was in the middle of one of the most important events in the civil rights movement. Walls was the youngest member of the “Little Rock Nine,” the group of nine African-American students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.

Her story is one that “shows that determination, fortitude and the ability to move the world aren’t reserved for the ‘special people,’” she told 100 people gathered Sept. 16 for DU’s Women’s Library Association lecture series.

The admittance of black students into Central High School in 1957 sparked a nationwide crisis when the Arkansas National Guard, under the order of Gov. Orval Faubus, prevented the students from entering the school. President Dwight Eisenhower responded by federalizing the National Guard and sending in Army units to escort the black students into the building on Sept. 25, 1957. The military stayed at the school for the remainder of the year.

Walls LaNier decided to enroll at Central High School in hopes of a better education and a better life, she explained. “I had been exposed to other parts of the country — things were different, [segregation] wasn’t happening and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Of some 150 African-American students who could have attended Central, only 114 signed up. But Central chose 39 of them — “personally I think based on grades, character, church-going,” Walls LaNier said — and of those 39, just nine showed up on the first day of school.

Walls LaNier says her time at the school was simply “painful.”

During her talk, she read excerpts from her memoir, A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School (Random House, 2009), in which she described the three classifications of students who attended Central.

First, there was the smallest group, the “ones easiest to identify. They were the tormentors, the cowards, the ones who used their evil efforts to push us out.” She said they “spat on us, kicked on us, pushed us into lockers and down stairs.”

Then, there was another small group of students that sympathized with the black students. Although they didn’t usually say anything, “you could see it in their eyes that said ‘sorry this is happening to you.’”

The biggest group, though, were those who kept silent. They acted as if “remaining neutral in the face of evil was a just choice” and “they chose not to see,” Walls LaNier said.

She described what she calls “the most horrific night of my life.”

It was Feb. 9, 1960. “For weeks things had been calm, and graduation was just four weeks away,” she said. She went to sleep only to awaken when her home was bombed.

“The haze hurt my eyes; it smelt like something had blown up in a chemistry lab.” Walls LaNier, her mother and two younger sisters were “begazed and bewildered but unhurt.”

The fact that her home had been bombed wasn’t the worst part of the experience, Walls LaNier said. It was who was blamed for the attack. Since her father wasn’t home at the time, he became a suspect. And a family friend — who was just 16 — was accused and spent two years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

Still, just weeks later in May of 1960, Walls LaNier became the first African-American girl to participate in the high school commencement at Little Rock High School. She said she plans to return to Little Rock later this year for her 50th class reunion — the first reunion she’s been invited to.

As her book title implies, Walls LaNier told the group that she thinks our country has come a long way, but looks forward to the day when people are really considered equal.

“Unfortunately, there’s always someone that wants someone else below them,” she said. “I do feel like we have come a long way, but I’m not saying it’s enough because it’s not.”

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