September 4, 1957, was supposed to be the first day of school for 14-year-old Carlotta Walls. But as she and eight other black teenagers approached Little Rock Central High School, in Arkansas, they were met by angry protesters. Members of the Arkansas National Guard blocked the teens from entering the building.
Three weeks later, the students finally walked through the school’s front doors. This time, they were protected by U.S. Army soldiers.
Carlotta and her classmates weren’t just going to school. They were making history. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was illegal. The teens were among the first black students in the country to attend an all-white school. They became known as the Little Rock Nine.
“[It is important] for people today to understand why kids are sitting in classrooms with those who don’t look like them,” Carlotta Walls LaNier, now 75, told TFK. “It was due to our success at Central [more than] 60 years ago.”
LOOKING BACK Carlotta Walls LaNier was honored at the White House in February 2015.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/GETTY IMAGES
The Little Rock Nine were assigned military escorts for the school year. But the troops were not allowed to enter classrooms, bathrooms, or locker rooms. So Carlotta, like the other eight black teens, dealt with mistreatment and violence daily. Students spat on her. They pushed her down the stairs. They knocked books out of her hands. Then they kicked her when she picked them up.
But Carlotta stayed strong. “I considered my tormentors to be ignorant people,” she says.
Upsetting photos of the Little Rock Nine appeared in newspapers and on televisions across the country. The images increased public support for desegregation. “When people saw what was going on, they were genuinely horrified,” Michael Brenes told TFK. He is a historian at Yale University. Brenes says the crisis at Central High School sparked school desegregation nationwide.
Today, Carlotta Walls LaNier still works to promote equality. She hopes young people will continue to stand up for justice. “We still have work to do,” she says. “We have to make sure the progress we’ve made is not reversed.”