Tonight at the New Rochelle Public Library one of the Little Rock Nine spoke in the Ossie Davis auditorium. Carlotta Walls Lanier, the youngest of the group, read three passages from her book and answered questions from the audience. The book is A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School and has a forward by President Bill Clinton. It took her 30 years to really speak about her experiences and almost 50 years to start to write the book.
She ironically recalls that as a young black child growing up in the south, she couldn't go to the white public library. She had to use a Quonset hut with the lesser collection of books. She said she appreciates the venue of the library to speak and is pleased that her book has been purchased by 800 libraries and has only been released at the end of August 2009.
Carlotta spoke at Isaac Young Middle School today and at Albert Leonard last fall. She played a short video of a "Where are they Now?" segment with Katie Couric and the Little Rock Nine. The video included black and white footage of the students trying to attend Central High School in Little Rock with the crowds of protestors and National Guard troops.
In 1957 Carlotta and eight other black students volunteered to be the first black students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Challenges abound, on the first day of school the National Guard, called by the governor, blocked them from entering the school. There were angry mobs of students and parents who were opposed to integration. Carlotta and the other eight students had to endure taunts, being spit on, cursed at, and threatened. She said she had glue put on her seat, was pushed in the halls, had her books knocked out of her arms, and was regularly harassed by a redhead that stepped on her heels in the hallway until they bled. The Little Rock 9 were physically assaulted, but could not retaliate or be expelled.
The black students were forbidden from participating in extra-curricular activity, though they were largely talented and involved in their previous school. For example, Carlotta was the basketball captain, cheerleader captain, Vice President of the student body and in the Junior Honor Society at her black elementary.
President Eisenhower sent 1,200 federal troops from the 101 Airborne division to protect their right to go to school. Each student was assigned a trooper to escort them to school and between classes. Throughout her years at Central, Carlotta was treated poorly, yet persevered.
The three segments of the book the author read were: when she volunteered to enroll at Central High School; the different categories of people she experienced during her years at Central High School; and when her home was bombed four months shy of her graduation from Central. Here are exerpts from these segments.
"Then one day before the end of the school year, I was sitting in my homeroom class when the teacher made an announcement: Central High School would be integrating in the fall. If our homes fell within certain border streets and we were interested in attending, we should sign the sheet of paper circulating around the room. … But you wouldn't have known that there was anything special about this moment. No one asked a question. No one offered a comment. … When the sign-up sheet got to me, I eagerly wrote down my name."
"The smallest group was the easiest to identify, those students who were determined to make our lives miserable: the tormentors. They were the ones who called us derisive names, spat on us, kicked, hit, pushed and slammed us into lockers and down the stairs. The second group included those students who were clearly sympathetic, even if they did not outwardly show it or jump to our defense in times of trouble. You could tell by the kind eyes that on our worst days seemed to say: 'I'm really sorry this is happening to you.' The majority of the students at Central fell into the third group: those who kept silent. They wanted all the 'trouble' to end. They did not torment us, but they didn't extend themselves to us in any way, either, not even quietly. There was another group, a small group, for sure, but I my mind the bravest of all: those teachers and students who at times were openly kind, who seemed to look beyond skin color and see nine students eager to learn, eager to be part of a great academic institution."
"It was about nine-thirty, my favorite time of the night. I savored those moments of solitude just before bedtime when I got to unwind, listen to the radio, and think. I clicked on the clock radio resting on the nightstand to soulful sounds of black rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and jazz artists … As I changed into my pajamas, my mind felt at ease. I'd made it to the home stretch at Central, I though. For weeks, things had been calm, no protesters or major incidents, and graduation was less than four months away. I accepted the first school that wrote to me with good news … Michigan State. Finally I would have a normal life. … No sooner had I closed my eyes, it seemed, than I was shaken by a thunderous boom. The house shook, and I could hear glass crashing to the floor in the front of the house. I sat up quickly with my hands gripping the sides of my bed, as if to steady the room. What was that? Was I dreaming?"
Question and Answer Session
During the question and answer session, Carlotta said she felt that the Little Rock Nine were the "designated drivers" of Brown v. BOE. That they integrated Central High School with no training, unlike those that integrated the luncheon counters.
One person asked if she had any feeling at the time that she was making history. Carlotta said all she wanted to do was to go to school. Many years later, she finally understood the impact. Another person asked if she ever encountered any of the hecklers later in life. Carlotta said that finally, during the 50th anniversary, she received letters and emails with apologies and people that regretted their actions. For example, one man wanted her to sign his yearbook, but succumbed to peer pressure and did not ask her, but later regretted it.
One questioner asked what the reaction from her black neighborhood was when she decided to go to Central High School. Carlotta said that many of her neighbors asked "Why are you bringing trouble?" They did not want her to go to Central High School.
Two questioners asked about the long-term effects of being harassed during her formative years. Carlotta said that another of the black students that integrated did not fare well. Another student suffered throughout her "deeply painful" life and had a "singular and lonely path" that "weighed on her psyche".
One questioner asked about Governor Orval Faubus, who fought integration and called in the National Guard against the students. He even closed all the schools, rather than integrate. Carlotta said that years later she shared a table at a symposium with him. He said he would do it all over again. When it was Carlotta's turn to speak, she said she would do it all over again, too.
There were parents and children in the audience. One mother asked Carlotta about the state of her spirit during the challenges. How did she get through the days? Carlotta said when she experienced racism she looked at the tormentor and knew they were ignorant. She felt they would be left behind and she was moving on to better things in her life. Another mother asked how was it that she experienced such hatred, but was not a hateful person. Carlotta said that it was of how she was raised. She was not taught hate at home and that hate was not a part of her.
Someone asked her if she had any regrets. After her house was bombed her father was a inconceivably questioned by the FBI as a suspect. Carlotta regretted the suffering her family endured. For example, her father would lose jobs when they found out his daughter was one of the black students at Central High School.
A student in the audience asked if the teachers mistreated her. Carlotta said that some teacher's were unkind, but reflected on one biology teacher, a Korean War veteran, Central High School graduate, who encouraged her to enter the science fair and inspired her. She won third place, but was not allowed on the stage to receive the award, but thrilled anyway with the honor.
Mayor and Councilman Stowe
Mayor Bramson and Councilman Stowe awarded Carlotta Walls Lanier the Proclamation of the City.
The mayor spoke of how New Rochelle is defined by its diversity throughout history. He recalled the "imperfect efforts" of the city and that New Rochelle was the first school district in the north to be desegregated by court order. The mayor spoke of "unfinished aspirations" of the city and said "despite the shape and dictates of law, people become the instruments and put themselves at great risk" for equal education of minorities. He said that he brought five black and white photographs to his mayoral office. These include: D-Day, Jewish refugees from WWII, Robert F. Kennedy campaigning, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Central High School.
Councilman Stowe said that he himself is a product of the 40s, 50s and 60s. And that he recalls the turbulent times and the "uncomplimentary benefits". Councilman Stowe said that the Little Rock 9 students took footsteps that left footprints on history for equity in education. He called Carlotta and her classmates courageous.
Carlotta recalled that at the 40th anniversary of integration, President Clinton, Arkansas governor Huckabee, and the African American principal of Central held the school doors open for the Little Rock Nine.
She and the other eight of the group, Civil Rights movement heroes, received the Congressional Gold Medal in November 1999. This is the highest honor given to civilians that is voted by the members of both houses of Congress. On the back of the coin it says "Courage, Bravery, Justice, and Opportunity". Carlotta brought the gold coin and showed it to the audience. She received a standing ovation.
Thanks for speaking at New Rochelle, Carlotta Walls Lanier. You are an inspiration!