Carlotta Walls LaNier was just fourteen when she and eight other teenagers made history by integrating Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Her story of surviving hatred, hostility, and hardships to go on and become the first black girl to walk across the stage of Central High and receive a diploma is recounted in “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School,” co-written with Lisa Frazier Page.
More than fifty years later, LaNier, the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, speaks around the country about her experiences and serves as president of their foundation, which provides scholarships to college-bound students. Here, she talks with Books on the Root about a post-racial America, changing minds, and the ordinary hero in all of us.
Books on the Root: You wrote that you hadn’t intended anything heroic when you signed up to attend Central. Had you known all that was going to come from integrating the school—both the good and the bad—do you think you would have decided differently?
Carlotta Walls LaNier: I would do it again because of the good that did come out of it. When I speak to classes, I let them know that if we had not been successful, I don’t think that [white students] would be sitting with students of color. With [integration] you learn from other cultures. You listen, talk, and you get to know one another. You find that we all want the same thing.
BOTR: What was going through your mind on September 25, 1957 when the U.S. military had to escort you and eight other teenagers into Central?
CWL: We were finally in school as we should have been. We had been out of school for three weeks. My true fear was that I was so far behind that I couldn’t compete. I always felt that given the same opportunities, start time, and access, I could compete with anyone. During my day and possibly today in subtle ways, you had to be twice or sometimes three times as good as a white person. So I felt like I had to be a super Negro in the classroom.
BOTR: Did you find yourself playing that role inside and outside the classroom?
CWL: It was very clear that we could only go to school. We could not participate in any extracurricular activities. Prior to Central, I had been captain of the basketball team, a cheerleader, and vice president of student council. I knew I was given those up, but thought that after some time, those opportunities would open up again. They didn’t. So the number one goal was doing well in your classroom.
BOTR: It must have been difficult to focus on education in the midst of so much hostility. How did you manage?