Many of the people attending today’s commemoration of the March on Washington played roles big and small in the civil rights movement, from registering black voters in the South to helping to end school segregation.
In 1957, Carlotta Walls LaNier was 14, and the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, the black children who volunteered to be the first to integrate the then all-white Central High School under a court ordered mandate.
It was dangerous.
Then-governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, ordered the National Guard to bar the children from entering school. Crowds spat on the children, and mobs intimidated them. Ultimately, President Eisenhower sent members of the 101st Airborne Division to escort the children to school.
LaNier is attending the commemoration today.
“This is quite a day,” LaNier told Here & Now. “I’m just pleased to interact with so many young people who are learning more about how far we have come, but also how far we have to go.”
LaNier said that telling her story encourages young people to pursue a path toward progress.
“You make these leaps, and unfortunately there’s a group that wants to divert progress,” LaNier said. “That is why it’s important for as many of us to talk about what we went through, so that history does not continue to repeat itself.”
- Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of the Little Rock Nine who helped integrate public schools in Arkansas.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, many of the people attending today's commemoration played roles big and small in the civil rights movement, registering black voters in the South or, in the case of our next guest, integrating schools. In 1957, Carlotta Walls was 14 and the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, the children who volunteered to be the first to attend Central High School under a court-ordered mandate. It was dangerous.
Then-Arkansas Governor Faubus ordered the National Guard to bar them. They were spat at, threatened my mobs. Carlotta Walls, now Carlotta Walls LaNier, is on the Mall today. She also attended a conference for young people in D.C. Carlotta, are you thinking about those days in the 1950s?
CARLOTTA WALLS LANIER: Well, you can't not think about the adversities and so forth that we had to go through.
YOUNG: What are the thoughts you're having today there on the Mall?
LANIER: Well, this is quite a day. I'm just pleased to interact with so many young people who are learning more about how far we have come, but also how far we have to go.
YOUNG: Talk more about that because your story does represent steps forward, but then steps back. President Eisenhower did step in. He sent the 101st Airborne in to protect you and the other students to get into the school.
YOUNG: But then Governor Faubus closed the school for a year. Everyone had to find studies elsewhere. When the school reopened, only you and Jefferson Thomas entered it. Is that part of what you're talking about?
LANIER: Yes, it is. You make these leaps, and unfortunately, there's a group that's always wanting to divert progress. That is why it's important for as many of us to talk about what went through so that history does not continue to repeat itself.
YOUNG: Well, and what - tell us what kids do tell you because we are realizing how few Americans in general know who Bayard Rustin is or, you know, some of the...
LANIER: You're right.
YOUNG: Yeah, organizers of the day. Are kids surprised to hear your story?
LANIER: Yes, they are, also inspired though. Not that I woke up one morning and wanted to be in the newspaper or what have you, I am part of history and I have accepted that. Normally when they study history, it's not about people that are alive today. It also encourages them to really learn more about the parts that are not being taught in school. And this is for all children. And we're sliding back, and I don't - I really don't like that. And that's why it's important for these young people to be here. I mean, there's so many young people here that is amazing.
YOUNG: Do kids say to you, that's impossible, mobs couldn't have kept you from school? Do they just believe that they're looking at someone, you know, alive in their lifetime that this happened too?
LANIER: Yes. And, you know, they don't want to believe it. But when they see the visuals, then it becomes reality to them. And they want to know, you know, how did you withstand all of the hate. But, you know, it was all about being nonviolent. You know, we've been told we were courageous, and I guess we were, but did we wake up that morning to be a courageous person? No.
YOUNG: Well, Carlotta, some say schools today have resegregated, not by law but by demographics, some say by choice.
LANIER: Yes. That is true. I feel that, bottom line, it's all about economics. What Dr. King - the March on Washington was really about jobs and freedom. We still have that problem. People have to have jobs and good jobs to be able to move into various neighborhoods to give a better life for their families. It all goes hand and hand. And if you don't have the education, you can't get the job.
YOUNG: Carlotta Walls, this is a day where attention must be paid. So can you name the other Little Rock Nine?
LANIER: With pleasure. Ernest Green, Melba Patillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Terrence Roberts, Minnijean Brown, Thelma Wair, Gloria Ray and one that we lost two years ago, Jefferson Thomas along with myself.
YOUNG: Carlotta Walls LaNier - Carlotta, thanks.
LANIER: You're quite welcome, and thank you for having me on.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.