‘Little Rock Nine’ member makes several visits to CMC | PostIndependent.com

‘Little Rock Nine’ member makes several visits to CMC

Beth Zukowski
Colorado Mountain College
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Carlotta Walls LaNier, author of "A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School," this year's Colorado Mountain College Common Reader, will visit CMC campuses Oct. 18-27.

Walking to school, going to class, cheering on the football team – nothing out of the ordinary, just a normal high school experience. It’s what most of us take for granted, but it’s all that Carlotta Walls LaNier ever wanted.

At 14, the girl then known as Carlotta Walls was the youngest of nine black students seeking to attend the all-white Central High School in 1957 Little Rock, Ark. On the first day of school, they were met by an angry mob as well as the Arkansas National Guard, under orders of the governor, to block their entry.

It took the intervention of President Eisenhower, who sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to escort these nine students inside the school. It would be anything but a normal high school experience.

“A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School” is LaNier’s personal story from this era. The book has been selected as this year’s Colorado Mountain College Common Reader. As such, it is a focus of discussions in the CMC community, punctuated by the author’s visit to campuses this month.

When LaNier finally entered Central High School, the battle was far from over. She and the others endured daily assaults. The “black leather boys,” a band of boys in black leather jackets, called them names and pushed, shoved, kicked or spit on them. The redheaded heel walker, a girl who tailgated her in the hallways, would step hard on the back of her ankle, rubbing it raw. Others remained silent.

Just to get through a day, LaNier’s arsenal included extra Kleenex to wipe away the spitballs, Band-Aids when the wounds brought blood, strategies of carrying books so they did not get knocked away and a full suit of emotional armor to ignore the insults hurled at her. She was not the only one who suffered. Her father mysteriously lost previously steady jobs and her home was bombed. There was little justice.

It would have been easier to drop out, but quitting wasn’t one of the things LaNier was taught. “I was taught to stay above it,” she says. She persevered and became the first black woman to graduate from Central High School.

When thinking back on perpetrators like the black leather boys and the redheaded heel walker, LaNier has this to offer: “Children are not born racists. It is something that is taught and reinforced at home.” The question becomes, she says, “Did they continue the chain of teaching it or did they break it? Did they come to terms with what they did, or did they teach their children, their nieces and nephews, the same thing?”

On the 40th anniversary of their entry into high school, the Little Rock Nine returned to Central High School. In a symbolic move, then-President Bill Clinton and Gov. Mike Huckabee held the doors to the school wide open for them. In many ways, the nine have been honored for the sacrifices they and their families made as the pioneering students of integration in Little Rock. Of these things, LaNier says, “It validated what we went through.”

From where she stands now, LaNier can see what a mighty long way we have come. She also sees what a mighty long way there is to go. She fought just to get in the doors of Central High School. Today, she’s dismayed that many teens don’t realize what it means to be able to walk through those doors. Some of them will drop out, an unimaginable choice for the 14-year-old girl who wanted more than anything for the simple right to go to her high school.

“Education needs to be our number one priority,” she says. “It is the foundation for any and every thing, for any kind of progress to take place.”

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