Near the end of Carlotta LaNier’s talk at the Westport Library last night, she described the first time she told her story publicly. It was at a high school in a white suburb of Denver.
When she was done, a boy said in astonishment and anger, “I’m in 11th grade. How come I never knew about the Little Rock 9 before?”
Most of the audience here had probably heard of the Little Rock 9. But most — like me — also had just a vague notion of who they were.
We’ve seen somewhere — though maybe not in social studies class — photos of 9 young Arkansas students, as they integrated Central High School in 1957. The most iconic is this:
That’s Elizabeth Eckford — not Carlotta. But she’s in this image:
She and 8 other teenagers were escorted to and from Central High by members of the 101st Airborne Division. They were called out by President Eisenhower, after Governor Faubus and the Arkansas National Guard failed to allow black students into the all-white school — 3 years after the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional.
Even the presence of soldiers in the halls could not stop 2,000 white students from pushing and tripping the Little Rock 9. They could not stop the white kids from putting gum on the black kids’ seats, or throwing water on their clothes.
The soldiers could not prevent Little Rock from closing every school the entire next year, in a desperate attempt to stop integration. And they certainly could not stop adults from bombing Carlotta’s house when she was a senior, or other adults from firing Carlotta’s father, and the parents of other Little Rock 9 students, from their jobs.
But the white students could not stop history. And no one could stop Carlotta from graduating on May 30, 1960 — with honors.
She told her powerful, inspiring — and, though historic, still all too real today — story on the Library’s huge screen, from her Colorado home. The event was moderated by Steve Parrish, A Westporter for 3 decades, he is a longtime friend of Carlotta’s sister, Tina Walls. In 2017, Steve wrote a deeply moving story for “06880” about the 60th anniversary celebration of those September 1957 days.
Introducing last night’s event, TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey called Carlotta — the youngest member of the Little Rock 9 — “one of America’s heroes.” He too made history come alive, describing his own excitement when, as a child in Tennessee, he learned in his all-Black school that integration would now be the law of the land.
Carlotta spoke of her own childhood. She swam in segregated pools, checked books out of a Quonset hut library, and climbed rickety stairs to reach her segregated movie seats.
But she spoke too of the Black teachers — many with master’s degrees — who pushed her to study and work hard, and her parents who did the same.
As she moved on, to talk about the harrowing first month trying to walk through the storied doors of Central — at the time, one of the top 40 high school in the country — and of the lonely 3 years that followed, many in the Library audience felt anger and shame. Many of the hundreds watching at home no doubt felt the same.
It took 30 years from those days for Carlotta to tell her story publicly. She did not seek the limelight, and the day after graduation she left Little Rock, vowing never to return.
But when she spoke to that high school class in Colorado, she realized the importance of speaking out. By the time of their 50th anniversary celebration in 2007, she and the other 8 students had raised nearly $1 million for scholarships.
Ten years later, at that 60th anniversary, they were lauded as heroes by many Americans — including a fellow Arkansan, former President Clinton.
But Carlotta’s final words were not about her own heroism.
Everyone can be a hero, Carlotta implied: “True heroism starts with one brave decision to do the right thing.”
An hour before Carlotta’s presentation, she spent time on Zoom with students from Staples High School, and Bridgeport and New Haven.
The teenagers may or may not have heard of Carlotta Walls LaNier in their own history classes. But they were prepared with excellent questions.
“Can people change?” one teenager asked.
“Yes,” Carlotta said — “if they are open to accept different experiences, and learn from them. If you are true to yourself, you can learn on a daily basis.”
“How did your teachers treat you?”
Some did not want to teach her, and treated her badly, she said. One of the worst was a Spanish teacher.
She praised her biology teacher, who encouraged her every day. He was a Central High graduate, she noted, and a Korean War veteran.
She paused. Then she told the students: Her biology teacher was the son of her Spanish teacher. His exposure to the world outside where he grew up made all the difference.
“Can you ever forgive people?”
“I forgave them a long time ago,” Carlotta responded. “I had to. I had to stay above all that was going on. That’s how I got through it.”
The final question was about “our better angels.”
“It’s hard to find them,” Carlotta admitted. “But I know they’re out there. That’s why it’s so important to learn, and talk about, our country’s history.”
She encourages all young people to do that. Besides, she noted: “History is being made right now.”