When she climbed the stairs at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Carlotta Walls LaNier had no idea she’d be climbing her way into the history books.
But at 14, she was one of a group of black students who became known as “the Little Rock Nine,” an iconic part of the American civil rights movement that would forever change the nation.
LaNier and eight other black students had volunteered as pioneers in the move to integrate the all-white high school. LaNier, now 69, was the youngest of the group.
On the first day of school, they were met by an angry crowd and by members of the Arkansas National Guard, who had been ordered by Gov. Orval Faubus to block their entrance.
“I saw the mob,” she said in a phone interview Friday. “I heard them. I ignored them.”
She’s been following her own path ever since. She graduated from Central in 1960, went on to college, raised a family and built a successful career in real estate. She now lives in Colorado.
LaNier will speak Tuesday at The Evergreen State College’s Tacoma campus, a free event open to the public. She’ll also speak earlier in the day at Evergreen’s Olympia campus; that event is for the campus community only.
LaNier recalled the events leading up to the school year that began in September 1957.
The previous spring, someone visited her segregated school, Dunbar Junior-Senior High, to recruit students for the integration efforts at Central. LaNier signed up during homeroom period and didn’t tell her parents until afterward. But she said they were proud of her.
“In my family, we spoke about education as the road to success,” she said. “All I ever heard was to get the best of everything you can possibly get.”
And she knew that the best books, the best school building and the best education to be had in Little Rock were hidden behind the walls of Central. It was a building she had to pass by every day on her way to Dunbar.
“I knew they had everything there,” she said. “I wanted that same opportunity.”
Before school began, she said, the school superintendent told the volunteer students about the strict rules they would have to adhere to.
“We couldn’t participate in any extracurricular activities,” she said. When the school day ended, they were to leave the grounds and not return until the next day.
The situation became so tense that eventually President Dwight Eisenhower had to call out the Army. Members of the 101st Airborne Division arrived to escort the Little Rock Nine to school.
LaNier said 39 students originally signed up in the spring of 1957. By September, most had dropped out. Some feared their parents would lose jobs. Others were probably simply afraid.
LaNier was not.
“At 14, you think you’re invincible,” she said. “I was excited to go to my new high school.”
Inside Central, the nine students were taunted, bullied, spit on, pushed down the stairs.
“They made it unpleasant,” LaNier remembered. “There was a group there who were determined to keep us out and make it miserable for us.”
But she persevered.
“That was what really got me through those years – to recognize ignorance and not respond to it,” she said.
In 1958, LaNier and the others were awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP.
But it was decades before she was ready to look back and reflect on her experience. In 1987, the nine students reunited during an NAACP meeting in Little Rock.
“It was a very emotional time,” she said.
During that reunion, she met then-Gov. Bill Clinton. Years later, when he was president, Clinton presented the Little Rock Nine with a Congressional Gold Medal, awarded by Congress for outstanding service to the nation.
The 1987 reunion made her think.
“I didn’t really want to revisit the pain,” she said. “I wanted to forget about it.”
Nevertheless, she decided to write her story. In 2009, her memoir, “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School,” was published.
She said she wrote it because she realized “no one can tell my story but me.”
She wanted the next generation to understand the struggle for justice.
“It was necessary for me to write the book, for historical reasons and for educational reasons,” she said.
LaNier and the other students helped change America. But like many African-Americans, she doesn’t believe the work of the civil rights movement is finished by any means.
“Unfortunately, racism continues to show its head,” she said. She cites a need for dialogue between people.
She hopes her efforts, and those who challenged the system with her, will reverberate far into the future.
“I hope we can get back to being centered in this country as to what is important in life,” she said. “I have a granddaughter who will be 3 in October. She will benefit from all the things I have done in the past.”