Tag Archives: Little Rock 9

Little Rock 9 Hero Inspires Library Audience, Students

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.

Although this photo shows the Little Rock 9 studying, the reality was different, Carlotta LaNier says. Because all 9 were in different classes — and because they had no white friends to call for study help — they were on their own for schoolwork.

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.

TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey introduces Carlotta Walls LaNier. (Photo/dan Woog)

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.

Carlotta LaNier on the Westport Library big screen. Steve Parrish (right) led the discussion. (Photo/Dan Woog)

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.”

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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.”

Central High School, 65 years ago. Despite decades of progress, race remains a deeply divisive issue in America today.

“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.”

The Little Rock 9: 60 Years Later

Steve Parrish has lived in Westport for 27 years. Now retired, he and his wife Diane raised 2 Staples High School graduates, Amanda and Clay.

Steve Parrish

In September 2007, Steve was invited to the 50th anniversary commemoration of the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock. Before he left, he was surprised to learn that some Westporters did not know the story of the Little Rock 9.

His visit to Arkansas was very moving. When he returned to Westport, he wrote about it. Today — on the 60th anniversary of that desegregation day — he shares his thoughts with “06880” readers.

September 25, 2007. I am standing near the steps of Central High School in Little Rock with Tina Walls, my friend and colleague of almost 20 years. There are hundreds of other people on the grounds. Many are smiling and laughing. Most of them are black.

September 25, 1957. Central High School in Little Rock. Hundreds of people were there. None were smiling, and almost all were white. The crowd was there to prevent 9 African American students — 6 girls and 3 boys—from entering.

The 1957 school year was supposed to begin on September 4, But when it became known that a group of black students planned to attend, “citizens councils” were formed.

These groups demonstrated, and threatened to physically block any African American student from entering Central High. When the identities of the black students became known, their families were harassed. They received death threats.

The Little Rock 9, with leader Daisy Bates.

On September 23, the 9 black students were slipped into school through a side door. When members of the mob learned what happened, they threatened to storm the building.

The next day, President Eisenhower ordered members the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to Little Rock. On September 25 — carrying bayonet rifles — they escorted the 9 black students into Central High School.

Adults taunted teenagers trying to go to school.

The Little Rock 9 are together again today, September 25, 2007, at Central High School. It is the 50th anniversary of the desegregation. They are on a stage built at the foot of the same steps they climbed half a century ago.

Carlotta Walls LaNier was only 14 years old that day the 101st Airborne escorted her into Central High School. Her mother Juanita also is here today. She looks beautiful, elegant and proud.

The commemoration program begins. There are speeches by the mayor, the president of the Board of Education and the governor. But it is The Little Rock 9 everyone wants to hear.

I’m not sure what I expect them to say, but I am struck by what they don’t say. They are not bitter. They are not angry.

Elizabeth Eckford tells the crowd that she has forgiven, that she doesn’t need an apology to forgive and move on. Gloria Karlmark speaks about faith, caring and sharing. She describdes the story of the Good Samaritan. Melba Beals quotes Gandhi, and says that we must be the peace we wish to see in the world.

The Little Rock 9 at Central High School — 50 years later.

When it is Carlotta’s turn, she talks about the importance of her family to her journey. She speaks of hope, and the promise of freedom for everyone. She says that The Little Rock 9 did not set out to change the world (although they did). They “just” wanted what they believed the Constitution gave them: the right to an education.

As Carlotta speaks, I look at her sister Tina and mother Juanita. I try to imagine what it must have been like for them. I try to put myself in Juanita’s position.

Could I have put my daughter in that car with the soldiers on September 25, 1957, not knowing what would happen? Could I have persevered through the profane phone calls, the death threats, the assaults on my child?

Now it is time for the keynote address. Bill Clinton — former Governor of Arkansas, former President of the United States — talks about the courage of the Little Rock 9 and their families. He says we should be grateful for what they did.

After speaking at the 50th anniversary commemoration, former President Bill Clinton gets a hug from a current Central High School student.

President Clinton tells us that is easy to have an opinion. It is easy to say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone did something to change things.”

But, he continues, “these 9 people didn’t just have an opinion. They didn’t just say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if someone did something to change things.’ These 9 people and their families stepped up and said, ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me.’ ”

I look at Tina. She is crying. I look at Juanita. She is smiling — half proudly and half sadly, it seems to me.

I look at Carlotta up on that stage. Her hands cover her mouth as she tries to maintain her composure.

Carlotta Walls LaNier: recently, and in 1957.

Then it is over. The 50th anniversary commemoration ceremony concludes. The Little Rock 9 pose for more photographs, perhaps their last ever as a group.

The crowd begins to leave. Tina and I still stand in front of the stage.

I am overwhelmed. I’m not sure what to say or what to do.

And then Tina takes me by the arm. She, Juanita and Carlotta escort me up the steps and through the front door of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Central High School, 60 years ago. Despite decades of progress, race remains a deeply divisive issue in America today.