Carlotta Walls LaNier: Her Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School
Youngest member of Little Rock Nine calls for community to come together as one
By Ruby Jones
This Black History Month, as many pause to reflect on the tremendous accomplishments made by Black people throughout the history of the United States and the world, we celebrate an important milestone with a call to action from a civil rights leader and pioneer in the fight for educational equality. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, when nine courageous teenagers integrated an all-white school, changing the American education system forever.
Carlotta Walls, Melba Pattillo, Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Minnijean Brown, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Gloria Ray, and Thelma Mothershed walked into Little Rock Central High School on September 25, 1957 – a revolutionary act that helped drive the fight for equality during the Civil Rights Movement.
Sixty-five years later as the fight for equality and civil rights continues, Carlotta (now Walls LaNier), the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine and a longtime Colorado resident shares messages of inspiration, empowerment, and hope for our community. Her message is accompanied by a request for organizations to work collaboratively to increase historical education among youth.
At just 14 years old, LaNier’s decision to integrate Little Rock Central High School was informed by her experiences as a child living in the heavily segregated Jim Crow South, along with sacred wisdom passed down and sown into her by her elders. “I came up in an era where you didn’t speak unless spoken to,” she recalled, “but we listened.”
In her memoir, A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School, Walls LaNier includes stories shared by her great-great-grandfather, who spoke about the importance of education for advancement within the Black community; and her parents instructed her to “Be prepared to go through the door whether there’s a crack in the door or the door is flung wide open.”
When it came to integrating Little Rock Central High School, LaNier said the choice was a “no-brainer.”
Determined To Gain Access
Having experienced her first taste of freedom at age 8, during a summer visit with family in New York City that allowed her to live as a “normal child,” LaNier returned to the oppressive South feeling that everything she’d been taught was validated by the trip.
“Even though I grew up in this Jim Crow environment, my parents kept telling me that change was going to take place, and yes, they told me that I did have to sit at the back of the bus,” she said, “but with dignity, with my head held high, and my back straight.”
By 14, LaNier was privy to disparities between segregated Black and white schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. Determined to gain access to what she and others saw as the best education possible, she did not hesitate to sign her name as a willing attendee and pioneer for integration at Little Rock Central High School.
“I passed the school every day; it was my neighborhood school. Why shouldn’t I go there?” she declared. “I had every right based on Brown v. Board of Education, number one. Number two, the Little Rock School Board immediately agreed to abide by that law.”
Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark federal case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregating public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional. The 1954 ruling followed a long and sordid history of systemic racism after the abolition of slavery in the United States.
A History Of Racial Oppression
Two-hundred forty-two years after the first enslaved Africans were documented as allegedly having arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia – near the riverfront colony of Jamestown – South Carolina became the first state to secede from the U.S. in 1860. Several states followed, wanting the right to extend slavery to newly acquired territories during the genocide of indigenous empires in the American West. They formed a political union called the Confederate States of America, which operated under a separate government and eventually opposed the northern Union states in the Civil War.
In 1863, as the bloodiest war in American history raged on, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all people held as slaves within rebellious Confederate states should be immediately freed. This battle strategy was largely ineffective, and it wasn’t until two years later on December 6, 1865, that slavery was abolished within the United States by the Thirteenth Amendment, except as a punishment for crime.
During the 12-year Reconstruction Era that followed the end of the Civil War, formerly enslaved people were granted opportunities to vote, participate in the political process, acquire land, and work. However, the defeated states were given free rein when it came to rebuilding their own governments, resulting in oppressive state laws called “Black Codes” that suppressed freedoms and guaranteed the continuation of forced, free labor through mass incarceration.
The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified three years later on July 9, 1868, extended United States citizenship and the protection of rights to previously enslaved people and their descendants. This amendment also prevented states from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, in addition to asserting that all states must grant equal protection of the laws to all people.
In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed that a citizen’s right to vote would not be denied due to race, color, or previous enslavement, but the resulting increase in the participation of Black people within state and national governments evoked violence from hate groups. These groups used intimidation, wrongful incarceration, voter suppression, violence, and murder, to keep Black people from voting.
State laws on segregation, which adopted the name “Jim Crow” laws from a minstrel performer in blackface, required Black people to use separate schools, railroad cars, hotels, theaters, restaurants, barbershops, and more. These laws were upheld by a U.S. Supreme Court case based on the jailing of Homer A. Plessy, who was arrested for riding in a whites-only train car from New Orleans to Covington, Louisiana. The 1895 verdict issued in the case upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the premise that equal rights could be granted while maintaining racial segregation.
The Landmark Ruling Leads To Little Rock
It was not until 59 years later, in 1954, after the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, that racial segregation would be ruled unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education case, which called for the lawful desegregation of American public schools.
“I think overall, our segregated environment and segregated school, with some of the best teachers, prepared us to be able to do what we needed to do,” LaNier said, remembering the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
As she and other young people stepped into their roles as agents of change, the community rose to support their endeavors, paving the way for integration’s success. “The [segregated] schools really reinforced what we were learning at home, and also what we were learning at church. All those three things worked together in a sense.”
Since the early 1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been working to challenge the segregation of schools, involving communities across the country in the fight for equality. The organization filed lawsuits in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware following student-led walk-out protests against educational inequity. With Thurgood Marshall as the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a case filed by Oliver Brown in the U.S. District Court of Kansas famously changed the tide and ended segregation in schools.
After the Kansas court upheld the constitutionality of segregation under the “separate but equal,” doctrine, Marshall appealed to the Supreme Court, which combined Brown’s case with four others under the name Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. With the Justices being divided on the topic of school segregation, the death of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson allowed for the appointment of Earl Warren, who helped orchestrate a unanimous verdict against school segregation on May 17, 1954.
In 1956, 27 students from segregated schools in Little Rock attempted to enroll in schools throughout the district. They were refused by the Little Rock School District Board of Education, prompting 12 parents to file an NAACP-sponsored federal lawsuit, Aaron v. Cooper, which called for the immediate desegregation of the schools. In 1957, three years after Brown v. Board of Education, the Little Rock Nine entered Little Rock Central High School, finally putting an end to America’s legacy of segregated education.
In an effort to halt integration, Governor Orval E. Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to block the school’s entrance, preventing the Black students from entering the building. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ultimately superseded the governor’s authority, placing the guard under federal command and sending the 101st Airborne Division to escort the students. The Black teenagers endured daily threats, vicious bullying, and devastating violence during their first year at the newly integrated high school, yet they persisted in pursuit of unrestricted access to equal education.
In 1958, Governor Faubus closed schools, pending the outcome of a public vote, which was lost 7,561 to 19,470 against integration. When schools reopened a year later, in August 1959, LaNier and Thomas were the only students to return to Little Rock Central High School. LaNier and Green, who was a senior upon integration, were the first Black students to graduate from the school. Thomas graduated in 1960, and passed away in 2010.
Persisting Through The Pain
After attending Michigan State University for two and a half years, LaNier moved to Colorado, where she married, had children, and established a well-respected career as a professional real estate broker. For 30 years, she enjoyed the “utopian environment” of Colorado provided, where she could live and work without constant attention to the activism from her past. She didn’t speak about integration or the hardships she endured as a member of the Little Rock Nine until the 30th anniversary of school desegregation in 1987.
Looking back at the journey she embarked on with a group of her peers 65 years ago, LaNier admits that she didn’t expect to still be talking about high school today, recalling the impact of the racism and brutality she endured.
“What helped me through everything, was knowing that I was just as good as the next person. They might not know it, but I know that I am just as good,” she said, addressing the significant emotional effects of trauma experienced by her, members of the Little Rock Nine, and others in the Black community. “Again, this belief comes from the complete environment – that includes the home, the school, the neighborhood, the church, the volunteering…all of that works hand in hand. When you’re isolating yourself, you’re not getting that.”
In A Mighty Long Way, LaNier writes that it was not in her nature, nor her mother’s nature, to speak about the discrimination they experienced. For her and so many others, the traumatic effects of racial discrimination were suppressed, with damaging long-term effects on mental and emotional health. “What I do like is that we’re talking about it now. That’s healthy,” she noted, “With that, I’m hoping that things will change within the mental health arena.”
In addition to increased mental health awareness in the Black community, LaNier discussed the impact of ongoing police brutality and the murder of innocent, unarmed Black men, women, and children at the hands of law enforcement and racist vigilante killers. From the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin to the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 that led to explosive nationwide protests, hundreds of untimely deaths are eerily similar to the heartbreaking lynching of Emmett Till in 1955.
“When Trayvon Martin’s situation took place, I told young people, ‘That is your Emmett Till,’ and I really do feel that way.” LaNier lamented. “Ahmaud Arbery is another one. You’re not going to forget that. Fortunately, justice has taken place in Georgia and Minneapolis, so I’m hoping we see more and more of that, and people standing up to what is right and compressing and depressing what is wrong. That’s my hope. I’m saddened that those young people are not here today because of misunderstandings and being too quick to pull the trigger.…We need to address it and come up with a solution.”
When it comes to solutions for inequities within the legal system, LaNier questioned, “What happened to the policeman who used to walk the neighborhood? We don’t have that anymore. They understood because they were there in the neighborhood; they knew who needed help. They knew their constituents.” Instead of defunding the police, she believes that funds could be used toward educating officers, enabling them to better deal with issues within the community.
A Call for Collaboration
By infusing civic and history education into the Black community, LaNier’s hope for our advancement lies in our education, and in our ability to work collectively to bring about change. Much like the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” she believes that change is possible with collaboration. Our community is at the precipice of major sociopolitical changes, to which LaNier advised, “I’m hopeful that there are some people out there that can pick up the baton – pick up the mantle, and move it forward.”
Moving the mantle forward starts with a better understanding of history and civic education. “You’ve got to know who you are, and whose you are,” she asserted. “With that, you have to have a passion for something. For me, it was always wanting to have access to the best.”
She offered encouragement and inspiration for young people faced with opportunities for advancement. “I think if young people would understand, and be centered, and believe in themselves, and be committed to whatever their skill level or passion – if they can do that and live by the Golden Rule, they can attain whatever it is that they put their minds to. But they’ve got to believe in themselves.”
With startling insights that reveal a serious disconnection between young people and elders, LaNier urged young people to listen to the elders in their lives, saying, “It might not be a grandparent, or an aunt or uncle, but there are people that you have respect for, and you can learn from those people.” She continued, “I think the whole thing is, how much do you want to learn? How much do you value being educated?”
The public education system is an incredibly limited source of historical education, especially when it comes to Black history. Recently, opponents of Critical Race Theory have launched campaigns to suppress historical education based on race, bringing awareness to the need for vociferous involvement in the fight for historical inclusion within the education system.
“I am concerned that they [young people] are not getting all that I got, even in a segregated school. Parents are paying taxes for good schools, and they’re not getting them,” LaNier cautioned. “It’s disheartening to know that these kids are not receiving the type of education that even I received in a segregated and integrated environment.”
Instead of relying on the public education system to provide comprehensive historical education, she encourages parents and community leaders to assume responsibility for equipping young people with historical knowledge through community programming and family involvement.
Like the title of LaNier’s memoir suggests, the Black community in the United States has come a long way, from the documented arrival in 1619. After generations of enslavement and the disenfranchisement created by centuries of racially oppressive educational, economic, political, health, and legal systems, unification has been the most effective tool in the fight to dismantle racism. In addition to the many contributions Black people have made to each of these systems, a legacy of strength and resilience in America is a testament to the ability to overcome adversity by working as one to create a future that boasts a more equitable environment for future generations.
Despite having come so far, the Black community has a long way to go in the fight for systemic equity. To combat internal issues that have left the community in a fractured, disunified state, community organizations are being called to work as collaboratively as possible in support of social justice initiatives that protect young people and provide educational opportunities, teaching “who we are,” and in what areas collective progress can be made. Instead of going around the problem, LaNier suggests that we teach young people how to deal with adversity, preparing them to go through problems and solve them, adding to the legacy of powerful change that will move us forward.
This Black History Month is an opportunity for our nation to move forward through education. “We need to celebrate what we have done,” said LaNier. “But boy, we have a lot to do!”
Editor’s Note: To find and support historical education, visit The HistoryMakers, a national nonprofit research and educational institution committed to preserving Black history, at www.thehistorymakers.org