Little Rock Nine member visits UALR
The Little Rock Nine made nationwide news when they were prevented from entering Little Rock Central high school in 1957 by the Arkansas National Guard and were harassed by a crowd of hostile anti-integrationists. They weren’t allowed in until President Eisenhower sent the U.S.Army 101st Airborne Division as escorts.
Fifty-seven years later, Carlotta Walls Lanier (youngest member of the Little Rock Nine) was back in Little Rock, not to face an angry crowd of segregationists, but to address an eager crowd of students, faculty and guests at UALR on Feb. 20 in Ledbetter Hall.
As part of the Black History Month activities by the Office of Campus Life’s Diversity Programs, Lanier began the evening by explaining why she speaks around the country, stating that some of the history that makes the country great is not found in books.
“So I do enjoy coming out and trying to help those to understand that time in history,” she said. She recognized how she is usually busy during this time of year because of Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March. She dismissed the notion that February is Black History Month because it’s the shortest month of the year by citing many reasons that it’s the appropriate month, including it being the month of the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Lanier also recognized Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Negro National History Week in 1926 which was appended to Black History Month 50 years later. Woodson, the son of slaves, was the second African American to earn a PhD from Harvard in 1912.
Lanier and Woodson share their appreciation of the value of education. Though Woodson didn’t begin his formal education until 20, he was able to earn his high school diploma, masters and bachelors in a few years. Lanier went to Michigan State University for two years before transferring to Colorado State College. She lamented the way that she feels the entire country, not just African Americans, has not placed adequate emphasis.
“Education is not the priority that it was,” she said. “I just don’t see the drive we used to have.”
Her own high school education was certainly atypical, but it was in more ways than the most obvious. The fact that she was one of only a handful of students at the all-white Central meant that she had to endure racism and hatred among peers and outsiders that opposed her presence, which is unimaginable for many today. However, there were other high school experiences that are normally taken for granted that she was not able to have.
“When all of the nine of us showed up at Central High School on that first day, we already knew that we would be going to class and then going home. We would not be coming back for football games, plays, dances, proms, club-meetings, band practices and so forth. We gave up all of that when we chose central,” she said.
The psychological torment that Lanier endured while attending Central did have an effect on her as she was not able to share her story for about 30 years. She didn’t want to talk about it, even with her children and family. In 2009 though, she released a book about her experiences, “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.”
When asked if she understood the magnitude of what she and the other nine students were doing back when she was 14, Lanier said, “We were being told the magnitude of what we were doing, but at 14 all I wanted was the opportunity to go to the best school available and I had a right to be there.”