Carlotta Walls LaNier Shares Her Story


On August 27th, students, parents, community members, and staff of all four Glenbards gathered in Biester Auditorium at Glenbard East High School to hear a very special guest speak: Carlotta Walls LaNier, a member of the famous Little Rock Nine.

Carlotta Walls LaNier entered her sophomore year of high school looking forward to new books. All her life, she had been given the old textbooks of the children from the white high school on the other side of Little Rock, Arkansas.

“I was never the first to write my name in the front of the book” she recalled.

However, in 1958, Carlotta would receive her first new textbook. She and eight other high-achieving black high school students would become the first to attend the newly desegregated Little Rock High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Spurred by the Supreme Court decision in the court case Brown v. Board of Education, all schools in previously segregated Southern communities were required to integrate. At the same period in time, the Little Rock school district was building two new school buildings, one in the primarily black area of town, the other in the primarily white area of town.

“They proposed to build two new high schools […] and only integrate one- Little Rock Central High School,” Carlotta explained.

Little did she know that she fell into the zoning borders for Little Rock Central, as her house backed up to an all-white neighborhood.

When Carlotta found out she qualified for attendance at Little Rock Central, she did not give the risk of backlash against integration a second thought, and signed up to attend the new high school.

“Little Rock Central was deemed the most beautiful high school in America,” Mrs. LaNier reminisced. “They had every possible activity going on […] it had everything.”

Carlotta’s parents did not know she had elected to attend Little Rock Central until July of that year. She was one of 147 black students within the zoning boundaries of the high school, 114 of which had chosen to attend Little Rock Central. Before the school year started, thirty nine of those one hundred and fourteen students sat in front of the Little Rock School board with their parents.

“This is when I think the selection took place,” Carlotta determined.
And select they did. After the meetings with the school board, only nine students remained: Carlotta, Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals.

These nine students showed up for their first day of school to an unwelcoming welcoming committee: Arkansas’ branch of the National Guard.

“Our parents dropped us off at a corner,” Carlotta recalled. “All of a sudden, the commanding officer came down and the National Guard closed ranks.”

When she asked them what they were doing, their response was simple: “We are here to keep you out.”

This action by the Arkansas state governor Orval Faubus was in direct defiance of federal law, but it was by design. Faubus was running for a third term, and needed the segregationist population of the state in order to keep his office.

The NAACP appealed, . Since none of the Arkansas justices would hear the case, a justice from North Dakota was brought in to judge, but what Carlotta Walls LaNier remembers most was their defendant: future Supreme Court justice and legal legend Thurgood Marshall, who Mrs. Walls LaNier described as her hero.

“It was in the way he presented the case,” she described.

Shortly thereafter, the Little Rock Nine were cleared to go to school, but that did not mean they were safe. On their first day at Little Rock Central, a mob of over a thousand angry segregationists gathered in front of the school, harassing Carlotta, her friends, and the press; one of which was hit with a brick by a protester and died of his injuries.

“They were troublemakers,” Carlotta explained.

Once the nine students arrived in the building, their torment only increased. By noon they were run out of the school building, carried away under blankets in police cars so that the mob would not pursue them.

“That was the scariest day of my life,” Carlotta recalled. “I’ll never forget my mother being out in the front yard with that worried look on her face. That is the day she started turning gray: September 3rd, 1957.”

After that date, the story of the Little Rock Nine had developed into the biggest news story that year next to the launch of Sputnik. No longer able to ignore the worsening situation in Little Rock, President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne into the city to ensure the students’ safety. 1200 troops in total, these men surrounded the nine students as they walked into the building and lined the hallways to make sure they were not hurt.

According to Mrs. Walls LaNier, it was terrifying. “Imagine the army out in your hallways with guns,” she said.

Carlotta’s transition to Little Rock Central was anything but smooth. She and the other black students were bullied in the classroom and prohibited from participating in extracurriculars, regardless of their academic and athletic talents.

“It was a pretty tough year, but I stayed focused on why I was there. I wanted the best education and that is where I could get it,” Carlotta stated.

Carlotta Walls LaNier’s focus and dedication paid off. In 1960, she was the first black female to graduate from Little Rock Central. “I caught the first thing smoking out of Little Rock the next morning,” she confided.

Mrs. Walls LaNier graduated from college and became a real estate broker. In 2010, she published a book detailing her time at Little Rock Central, titled A Mighty Long Way. She acknowledges the advances that the United States has made on the Civil Rights front, and yet she believes that there is still progress to be made.

“We still have a long way to go” she said. “I still feel that there is a long way to go; I never thought I would live to see a black president. It’s happening. All we have to do is be persistent.”

Mrs. Walls LaNier left one piece of advice for the young people in her audience: to stand up for what they believe in.

“Courage is stepping up,” she stated, “doing what you believe in and seeing it through. There is courage in everyone, just on a different level.”

As Carlotta is courageous, so can we be.

Mrs. Walls LaNier’s book, A Mighty Long Way, is now available for purchase.