It was 1957, three years after the Supreme Court had struck down school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education, when about four hundred students at a black high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, volunteered to be among the first to integrate all-white Central High.
Only nine were chosen. One of them, Carlotta Walls LaNier, was simply after the best education possible. The fourteen-year-old didn’t realize she would be making history.
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Groton hosted LaNier for an all-school lecture. She took the community back to the taunts, threats, and violence that traveled alongside her as she attempted to walk through the doors of Central High, landing in the center of an important chapter of the civil rights movement.
The nine black children, who became known as the Little Rock 9, had been chosen after careful scrutiny of the students who had volunteered. Central High officials looked at grades, family backgrounds, behavior—anything that might help predict who could handle the chaos that would ensue.
The determinedly obstructionist governor, Orval Faubus, announced that he was sending the Arkansas National Guard to Central High—ostensibly to “protect” the citizens of Little Rock. “I knew I was a citizen,” said LaNier, who, in her innocence, did not realize that the National Guard would prevent her from entering. “I slept the last night of innocence of my life,” she added.
The next morning, wearing a dress her uncle had bought (her mother sewed most of her clothes), she went to Central High, where the nine students were told that “no Negroes were permitted.”
LaNier described that as a “moment of disbelief.” She loved school and was stunned by the hatred. Ultimately, on September 25, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower sent in federal troops to uphold the law, and the students were able to enter.
But the battle wasn’t over. When the first of the Little Rock 9 graduated from Central High, Dr. King attended the ceremony. The governor then took extreme action: he closed all four of the high schools in Little Rock—affecting more than 3,600 students, black and white. LaNier continued her education with a correspondence course through the University of Arkansas, returning to Central High the following year, after a federal court ruling forced the schools to open.
“The harder the segregationists fought to keep me out and make my life miserable, the more determined I became to get that diploma from Central,” she said.
LaNier did graduate, but the road to that diploma was not smooth. While the Little Rock 9 regularly endured hitting, pushing, tripping, name-calling, and ostracism, the abuse sometimes was even more serious. In May 1960, shortly before LaNier’s graduation, her house was bombed. No one was hurt and the damage was minimal, but the message was clear. Police charged a man she is certain was innocent; nevertheless, he served eighteen months of a five-year sentence.
Because of her bravery as a teenager, LaNier has received numerous awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal. The dress her uncle had bought for her first day at Central High is on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
Before sharing her reminiscences of Central High, LaNier described meeting Dr. King, who was staying with a friend of her family’s. A young teen, she was told to be on her best behavior and went, dutifully, not realizing the emerging civil rights leader eventually would become an icon. “He was a young man on a mission,” she recalled, but had not yet written his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or given the rousing speeches for which he became known. Dr. King was not superhuman, she said, but he “put his gifts to the service of all of mankind.”
Lanier concluded her MLK speech with advice for Groton students. Speak up if you hear a racial joke or see someone treated unfairly, she told them. When meeting someone different than yourself, consider it an opportunity to expand your world. Turn a dream into a plan and work on that plan.
LaNier, gracious and accessible, met with students and faculty over lunch and patiently spent forty-five minutes signing copies of her autobiography, A Mighty Long Way.
Groton’s two-day MLK celebration also included performances of Open Admissions by Shirley Lauro, a powerful two-person play about educational inequities; a screening of the documentary 13th, about the over-incarceration of black males in America; and a TED talk by social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, which was followed by small-group discussions.
As Lanier pointed out, there is much work remaining. While race relations have “come a mighty long way,” she said, “you don’t have to look too far to see that we’re still a nation divided by race, class, and culture.”