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Civil rights icon Carlotta Walls LaNier shares experiences with Pfeiffer community

LaNier Group2aOn Nov. 13, Carlotta Walls LaNier, a member of the Little Rock Nine, addressed students, faculty and wider community at Pfeiffer University, retelling the experiences of integrating Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. She was introduced by Pfeiffer alumna Margaret Whitt '68, professor emerita of English, University of Denver, and author of Short Stories of the Civil Rights Movement (University of Georgia Press, 2006).

Ms. LaNier shared details of a process that spanned three separate dates over the course of a month in Sept. 1957 because of opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 landmark ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which made illegal the racial segregation of public schools. When she and the eight other African American students were finally allowed to enter the high school on Sept. 25, 1957, they were escorted and protected by 1,200 members of the U.S. Army's elite 101st Airborne Battalion, known as the Screaming Eagles, a directive that came from President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Despite close, high-level attention throughout their entire first year at Central High School, during which none of the Little Rock Nine was allowed to participate in school-sponsored extra-curricular activities that Ms. LaNier described as “the activities I was always taught make one a well-rounded person,” the group struggled to be treated fairly. In 1960, after becoming Central High School's first female African American graduate, Ms. LaNier attended Michigan State University for two years, transferring to and later graduating from Colorado State College (now University of Northern Colorado).

Ms. LaNier credits her parents, who she says believed that change in regard to race in America would someday come, with bestowing on their family “the ideals of perseverance and sacrifice and that it was important to acquire the best education available to be prepared for the change.” It was this fortitude that prompted Ms. LaNier as a ninth grader to sign up to be one of the first group of students to integrate Little Rock Central High School, her neighborhood school, and made her determined to continue attending and graduate in the face of discriminatory behavior from students and others.

In 1987, 30 years after they integrated Central High School, the Little Rock Nine reunited for the first time at their former school amid “a flood of memories.” In 1999, each member of the Little Rock Nine was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian award, by President William J. Clinton, whom they had met in 1987 during his second term as governor of Arkansas. The group had previously been awarded the highest award of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Spingard Medal.

“Hearing Ms. LaNier's story from her perspective provided today's students, who were born decades after the civil rights movement, a firsthand account of the treatment she and others endured to bring about necessary change,” said Sylvia Hoffman, assistant professor of English and director of cultural programs. “We're grateful for her willingness to share this important part of her life with Pfeiffer.”

Ms. LaNier signed copies of her book, A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School (One World/Ballantine, 2009) for audience members. She has donated items of historical and cultural significance, including the dress she wore her first day at Central High School and her report cards, to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening on the national Mall in 2015.

Photo Caption: Carlotta Walls LaNier, second from right, shared stories with audiences at Pfeiffer University of her historic participation as one of nine students who integrated Little Rock (Ark.) Central High School in 1957. She is with Dr. Tracy Espy, provost and vice president of academic affairs; Margaret Whitt '68, professor emerita, University of Denver; Donna Miller, Sylvia Hoffmire, assistant professor of English and director of cultural programming; and President Mike Miller.

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