Little Rock Nine member speaks at PPLD event
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Carlotta Walls LaNier signs copies of her book for audience members at Library 21c. (Photo by Marcus Hill)

Before Carlotta Walls LaNier spoke at Pikes Peak Library District’s Library 21c on Jan. 17, much of the audience had a vague understanding of her story. 

But by the time she finished her speech, they were giving her a standing ovation — and LaNier had given them a new perspective on desegregation and the Little Rock Nine. 

More than 150 people had gathered to hear the Little Rock Nine member, now 80 years old, share memories of how she endured high school desegregation in the 1950s. 

“We need to start the year out with getting the community into the idea of working together and listening to these stories,” Shirley Martinez, PPLD director of diversity, equity and inclusion, tells Sixty35. 

The Little Rock Nine were a group of Black students who enrolled at Little Rock Central High School, a previously all-white school, in 1957. That was three years after the Brown v. Board of Education verdict made segregated schools unconstitutional. 

Though integration began Sept. 4, 1957, in Little Rock, many still hadn’t accepted Black and white students sharing schools. 

“Once we got there, the Arkansas National Guard, with their fixed bayonets, closed ranks and said we could not go up the sidewalk,” LaNier said during her speech. “The commanding officer comes to us and spoke to [the white minister who escorted us] and said, ‘Turn them around and take them back.’ That’s when we discovered we wouldn’t be allowed to go into the school.”

The nine students returned home but, on Sept. 20, 1957, Judge Ronald Davies ruled that then-Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus could not stop the desegregation process. 

On Sept. 23, 1957, the Little Rock Nine returned to Central High. 

During the original integration attempt, around 100 people gathered to stop the Little Rock Nine. By then, LaNier said, the crowd of “rioters” had grown to more than 1,000. She compared the scene to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.  

The Little Rock Nine arrived late in the school day, hoping to avoid protesters. But that plan failed and the group had to leave by third period. 

“A policeman came to my geometry class. My teacher called my name and said, ‘Get your books and follow this man,’” LaNier said. “It was the scariest day for me because the policeman escorted me and the others down into the bowels of the school and put us into two police cars. … There were 17 Little Rock policemen trying to stop 1,000 protesters.

“I heard one policeman say to the other who was driving the car, ‘Put your foot to the floor and don’t stop for anything.’” 

As police and the Little Rock Nine left the school, LaNier said, one officer gave the students blankets to cover their faces in the car. 

LaNier declined. 

“Blanket over my head? No, I’m going to see what’s going on.” 

She recalled glancing out the window and seeing a Black reporter among the “rioters and thugs.” LaNier said several people chased the reporter, L. Alex Wilson, but he “refused to run.” 

LaNier explained that, during the Sept. 4 integration attempt, Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, never received the message about where to meet her fellow students.

“She walked alone and was harassed by the crowd,” LaNier said. “[Wilson] saw dignity in Eckford. He had seen a lynching in Florida as a reporter. Because of that lynching and the mob that was there, [in Florida] he ran. … He decided he was not going to run.” As Wilson stayed to make sure Eckford was safe, LaNier said, someone in the mob threw a brick, which hit Wilson’s head. 

After police took the teens home, LaNier said that evening President Dwight Eisenhower announced that the Army’s 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, would escort the Little Rock Nine to school. 

Blanket over my head? No, I’m going to see what’s going on - Carlotta Walls LaNier

Copies of Carlotta Walls LaNier’s book A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School on display before her speech at Pikes Peak Library District’s Library 21c on Jan. 17 (Photo by Marcus Hill)

“One thousand, two hundred troopers rolled into Little Rock on Sept. 24 with one tank and a helicopter buzzing over the school,” LaNier said. “… We had to have the guards escort us in and line up in the hallways. They escorted the nine of us from one class to another. That went on for the year of 1957-58.”

In September 1958, Faubus closed all Little Rock high schools to stop desegregation attempts. Known as “The Lost Year,” it affected 3,655 Black and white students, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. LaNier took correspondence courses at the University of Arkansas to continue her education.

In June 1959, federal courts ruled the closure unconstitutional. Students returned to school that September. By then, only two of the Little Rock Nine — LaNier and Jefferson Thomas — remained at Little Rock Central High School. They still faced racism.   

LaNier was in her senior year in February 1960 when unknown assailants bombed the family home. “It took a lot out of me,” LaNier said, but she was back at school the next day. “I was not about to let them think they had won. I started there and I had planned to finish there. Especially with all the things I had gone through my 10th-grade year, I needed that diploma from Little Rock Central High School to validate all the things I had gone through in 1957-58.”

She graduated in May 1960 — the only woman from the Little Rock Nine to finish at the school. “The very next day,” LaNier recalled, “I took the first thing smoking out of Little Rock.”

Many waited for LaNier to sign their copies of her book, A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School, and some reflected on how more people should know the whole story.

“We want her to speak to every young kid in the country,” Carrie DeValk told Sixty35 as she waited in line. “We’re from Woodland Park and there’s a recently voted-in conservative school board who have changed the social studies curriculum to not include this kind of education. I hope she can come to Woodland Park and speak to the kids there.”

Martinez says having someone of LaNier’s caliber “in our own backyard” is an opportunity.

“We have icons from the Civil Rights era who are still alive, who have books, and we need to share their stories,” she says. “… When you tell your story from a perspective where young people in the audience can ask questions, that’s critical.”

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