Her Long Road to the Promised Land
Carlotta Walls LaNier says she isn’t one to talk about her past.
This is somewhat of a surprise, as LaNier first earned her place in history at age 14. She’s the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine, the group of African-American high school students who in 1957 faced down mob violence, death threats and even bombings to integrate Little Rock Central High School.
But even today, after decades of public appearances, interviews with journalists and private meetings with presidents, LaNier is notably soft-spoken about her time at Central High School, arguing that she didn’t intend to become a symbol of the civil rights movement — she just wanted to get the best education possible.
“I didn’t expect what took place,— she said in an interview. “I don’t think any of us did.—
Although LaNier is a bit timid in talking about her place in history, she recently released a memoir about those days, titled “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.— LaNier’s goal, she said, is to educate a new generation about an important part of the civil rights movement.
“Young people that I speak to all the time, whether in high school or college, have shown an interest in wanting to know about the history,— LaNier said. “I felt a little anger with some of the students that they weren’t being taught about some of the historic events, ours in particular.—
Former President Bill Clinton wrote the book’s foreword, recalling rooting for LaNier and her eight colleagues from nearby Hot Springs, Ark., as they integrated Central High School. Clinton would go on to meet the group as Arkansas governor, and as president, he awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal. Clinton writes the book “will make you ashamed and proud, angry and hopeful, heartsick and happy.—
LaNier begins on a happy note, reflecting on growing up in Little Rock, surrounded by a close, hardworking extended family. LaNier recounts fond memories of visiting family in New York, where she glimpsed a life without segregation.
But even in segregated Little Rock — LaNier remembers sitting at the back of the city bus — there were indications that things were improving. White and black children in her neighborhood often played softball together, for example.
And when school integration first began, it was handled almost routinely, LaNier writes. Just before finishing classes at her all-black junior high school, a teacher passed around a form asking students whether they wanted to attend the all-white Central High School, which would integrate in the fall. LaNier signed the paper.
“I couldn’t help wondering how much wider my options for college would be if I attended Central and suddenly had all of its resources available to me,— she writes. “Plus, Central had competitive athletic teams, and it was just a mile from my home.—
The calm didn’t last. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus refused to integrate the school, and a violent mob gathered outside to prevent LaNier and the eight other black students from entering.
The nine finally made it inside on Sept. 23, only to be pulled out as police feared for their safety. The next day, President Dwight Eisenhower announced he would send the army to Little Rock to force integration.
“What was mind boggling was that the city was a pretty moderate city, and the state of Arkansas, and its governor, was moderate,— she said. “As you grow older, you understand that it was more of a political agenda than anything else.—
Even after Eisenhower intervened, LaNier and her colleagues still faced harassment and violence from some of the white students, who were rarely reprimanded.
LaNier got through by staying focused, recalling that she had always been told by her parents that she “was equal as the next person, I could do just as well as the next person.—
“I just decided that these people just didn’t get it,— LaNier added. “They were ignorant — it was their problem, not mine.—
But the torment continued, and LaNier’s home was bombed a few months before she graduated, though no one was injured.
Although the bombing strengthened LaNier’s resolve to graduate — “All I needed was those next four months to pass and let me walk across that stage,— she said — it is perhaps the most difficult part of her story to tell, as her childhood friend Herbert Monts was falsely accused, convicted and jailed for the bombing.
In her book, LaNier helps Monts clear his name. Several pages are told from Monts’ perspective, as he recalls how police used him as a scapegoat to get a conviction. He spent nearly two years in jail and was eventually granted release by Faubus. “Kind of ironic that the man who had caused all of this trouble in the first place ended up helping me get out,— he jokes.
LaNier left Little Rock after her graduation in 1960, Although she’s visited, she hasn’t moved back. While historic, her high school years were tough for her family.
“My father told me that his job was to provide for us, and our job was to bring home A’s and B’s,— she said. “I think what really bothered him was that the laughter and the fun in the house was no longer there. But they stood behind me and supported me.—
LaNier’s father has since passed away, but her mother is still active and has come to her book signings. But the two have never had a heart-to-heart conversation about her Central High School years. “I really don’t want to make her any more uncomfortable,— LaNier said.
More than 50 years since she first helped integrate Central, LaNier is optimistic. A Colorado resident, she saw now-President Barack Obama speak during the Democratic National Convention last year and came to Washington for his inauguration.
“There’s still more to do,— she said. “But progress has been made.—