Civil rights pioneer discusses her ‘journey to justice’ in Edwards
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – When young Carlotta Walls climbed the stairs of Little Rock Central High School on Sept. 25, 1957, she and the eight other African American students only wanted to make it to class.
Instead the Little Rock Nine made history.
It was one of the watershed moments of the civil rights history, and Carlotta Walls LaNier will be in Edwards Thursday to talk about it. It’s part of her tour of all the CMC campuses and the college’s Common Reader program honoring her book, “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.”
The book was released after LaNier broke three decades of silence. It’s worth the wait.
“For thirty years, I didn’t utter a public word about what had happened to me and my comrades at the plae once known as ‘America’s Most Beautiful School,'” LaNier writes in the prologue to her book. “I rarely even talked about it at home.”
She says she and her mother have never held a serious conversation about what happened to her. They’re not prone to dwell in the past or examine their feelings publicly.
“The wounds opened in Little Rock – I’ve come to realize – arae deep, and in csome cases, still raw,” LaNier writes.
In 1987, she and the rest of the Little Rock Nine returned to Central High School as guests of the NAACP and then-Gov. Bill Clinton.
“As I walked those halls, it was almost as if I could hear those vile words bouncing off the walls again: nigger … nigger … nigger. I could see the contorted faces of my clasmates and their snickers and jeers again. I could feel the slimy wet spit,” she wote. “For a moment, it felt as though sadness might suffocate me. I realized that even though I had built a new life clear across the country, I hadn’t moved an inch from Little Rock.”
Finally, she began to tell her stories and those of the Little Rock Nine, and now she’s a spellbinding public speaker.
Her book is a story of dedication of family, perseverance and sacrifice, and it’s a salute to her parents, Cartelyou and Juanita Walls, she writes.
“They were the ones who ingrained in me the quiet confidence that, Jim Crow be damned, I was not a second-class citizen. It was that confidence that told me I deserved the quality education the Supreme Court said I was due, the confidence that steadied my feet to defy the racists with my mere presence at school every single day,” LaNier writes.
Little Rock’s school district decided against fighting the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, that struck down the so-called “separate but equal” school systems that segregated white and black students into different schools.
In 1957, LaNier was one of nine African American students chosen to break the color barrier at Little Rock Central High School.
She says she thought she was headed for a normal high school experience. She was young, and she was wrong.
The day before school started, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to keep the nine African American students from entering the building. Screaming white students surrounded them and the school, and the nine new students were turned away.
“I was completely stunned,” LaNier told the Washington Post, mostly because she had never missed a day of school in her life.
Two weeks later they tried again, after a federal judge ordered the National Guard to stand down. The nine were spirited into the school through a side door, but school officials feared the mob outside would storm the school, so they snuck the nine back out and police hid them in the back of patrol cars and took them home.
The next morning, President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Central High School and the Little Rock Nine attended their first classes.
But of course that’s not the end of the story. She endured abuse ranging from small minded to what would be considered criminal today – endured it with a dignity and strength far beyond her years.
Faubus closed schools completely for LaNier’s junior year, and she took correspondence courses.
On May 20, 1960, she became the first African American to participate in Central High’s commencement exercises.
The next day, she left Little Rock.
LaNier attended Michigan State University for two years, and in 1968 earned her college degree at Colorado State College, now the University of Northern Colorado, after her family moved to Denver in 1962.
She married Ira C. “Ike” LaNier, and began her career in Colorado’s nonprofit sector, working for the YWCA as a program administrator.
She founded her own real estate brokerage firm, LaNier and Company, in 1977, and is a member of UNC’s board of trustees.
The Little Rock Nine came to be called “foot soldiers for freedom.”
In 1999 at the White House, members of Congress and the President bestowed upon Lanier and the other member of the Little Rock Nine the nation’s highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal, for their sacrifice and contribution to the cause of equality.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or email@example.com.