Changing Minds: The Youngest of the Little Rock Nine Talks Justice

Illustration for article titled Changing Minds: The Youngest of the Little Rock Nine Talks Justice

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?

CWL: I always knew who I was. I wasn't at Central to change anyone's mind. Although, I felt that minds would change as they got to know me. I wasn't there to be happy sitting next to a white person. I wanted what they were getting: a good education.


BOTR: Do you feel like you were changing minds, though?

CWL: I think some people respected me. Some probably had different thoughts about us that went against stereotypes. I don't think anyone was there to love me, and I didn't expect that. I did gain respect from some of them, by virtue of what I had to go through. Not that anyone of them said that to me though.


BOTR: Governor Faubus closed Central and the other Little Rock high schools for a year after the '57-58 school year as a way to avoid desegregation. When the school reopened you were one of the two students from the Little Rock Nine to return. Why did you go back?

CWL: I needed that diploma. I needed to go back to validate that all the things I had gone through were worth it. Determination and perseverance got me through.


BOTR: For thirty years, you didn't speak about your experience at Central and all that your family went through. What made you finally able to revisit your experiences and discuss them in a book and around the country?

CWL: The first time that all nine of us were together again and returned to Central was thirty years later. The event was a news item on CNN. It was an emotional time. I was getting a number of requests to speak to civic and history classes. I didn't want to at first, but the more I thought about it, I thought it was necessary. My children were growing up and I knew that they really needed to know.


For a long time, I had pushed everything that had taken place to the recesses of my mind. It took a long time to get to where I am today.

BOTR: Is it surprising that the nine of you are still a tight knit group after more than fifty years?


CWL: No. Many can't say that they have eight close friends from high school. I stay in contact with everyone. There are nine different personalities and nine different stories. This book just happens to be mine. Not all of us stayed in contact for the first thirty years. Everyone was finding their own way. But I feel blessed that we are all alive today and that all of us were able to experience the 50th anniversary.

BOTR: Did you ever think you'd see the day we'd have a Black president?

CWL: Initially, as a young person in my Central and college days, I thought we might see a Black president. But as the years went on and things weren't moving as fast as I thought they should be, I thought that my children would see an African-American president. I'm moved by the fact that I've lived long enough to see it.


In my community though, we heard that we could be president; my parents always told me I could be anything I wanted to be. I know that part of the reason why our parents told us this was to motivate us, even if they didn't believe it. It was something inspirational to give us. But as reality set in, you started to wonder if it was possible. Education was always the key to success. We were always told that if you have credentials—master's and doctorate degrees—behind you, you could get through the door. Some got disenchanted when they had everything checked off the list to be vice president and president, and weren't getting it. Many became cynical. But I always liked to look at the glass as half full.

BOTR: There's a lot of talk about America's potential to be post-racial. What do you think is required to make this a reality?


CWL: It's going to take awhile. You can't assume because we have an African-American president that the race issue is said and done. Take for instance, what happened to Skip Gates. That in itself shows that it's going to take a lot for people to see people as people. I do feel that the younger generation can do that if they're minds aren't tainted by racism. But I think that young people need to go to school and grow up in communities together. We need more interaction among each other to dispel myths and stereotypes. But economics plays a big role. If you don't have money to move into a particular neighborhood, you can't do it. This affects all types of people no matter what color you are.

BOTR: What always amazes me is that you were just fourteen years old when you helped to integrate Central. It seems that many young people don't know their own strength. How can we remind them that they are powerful enough to affect change in their lives, community, and world?


CWL: When I tell my story, I make it a point to let youth know that we were just teenagers. It has empowered many of the young people I talk to. They have come up to me after my presentations to tell me that hearing what I went through inspired them to do better. You never know how much you can change a person or help to put them on another or better path.

BOTR: You make a great point in "A Mighty Long Way" that your family may have seemed unlikely candidates for helping to spark nationwide change, but that the point in sharing your story is "to show that determination, fortitude, and the ability to move the world aren't reserved for the ‘special' people."


CWL: You are absolutely correct. It takes ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Often we don't know what it is, so something needs to be tapped to bring that out. There's a hero and shero in all of us. In almost every one of his speeches, the President speaks of service. There is something that everyone can do. Volunteer for one hour out of your week at a school in your community. Grow a garden and give food to an elderly person. I don't like to see people who just sit around and do nothing. We all have something to give.

Read an excerpt of "A Mighty Long Way."

is a writer, speaker, author of books for adults and youth, and the book columnist for The Root. Her most recent book is \"The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs.\" Visit her at