September 2009

A pioneer of integration recalls the struggles of the Little Rock Nine

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In the summer of 1957, 14-year-old Carlotta Walls, like any teenager preparing to attend a new school, was excited and anxious. Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was an excellent school that would open up many doors for her future. But Carlotta was concerned about whether she could keep up academically. In many ways, she was a typical teenager. But her high school experience was anything but typical; in fact, it was historic. She was one of the Little Rock Nine, the students who integrated the Little Rock school system.

For those who lived through those days, the events will never be forgotten: a white mob surrounded the school and troops escorted the students to class. For the young, Carlotta Walls LaNier’s memoir is a timely reminder of where we came from, how much we’ve accomplished and the progress we still need to make.

The first African-American students at Central High School suffered constant harassment. Some white students and teachers were openly hostile. Classmates tripped them in the hall, knocked their books out of their arms and spat at them. The African-American students were told they could not retaliate. The suffering went beyond the classroom. Suddenly, Walls LaNier’s father had a hard time finding work. Their home was bombed.

Walls LaNier’s memoir emphasizes that she and her fellow students were not civil rights professionals, but children. She was a young girl who had little interest in being on the front lines. She chose Central because she was a good student and thought she would get the best education there. When legal wrangling closed the school, her main concern was how far behind she would be in her classes. Her response to the daily racism was to keep her head down and find ways to disappear. She felt guilty at the worry and financial burden her choice placed on her parents.

Yet her story is a positive one as she recounts her own successful life and her pride in watching Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008: “We were indeed a country ready to move beyond its racial scars and wounds into a more hopeful future.”

Faye Jones is dean of learning resources at Nashville State Technical College.

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