On September 4, 1957, 14-year-old Carlotta Walls and eight other black teenagers approached Little Rock Central High School, in Arkansas. It was supposed to be their first day of school, but angry protesters threatened the students, and Arkansas National Guardsmen stopped them from entering the building. Hundreds of federal troops armed with rifles and bayonets lined the streets.
Three weeks later, when the teens finally walked through the school’s front doors, they were protected by U.S. Army soldiers sent by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. They were escorted up the school’s front steps by members of the 101st Airborne Division.
When Carlotta and her classmates entered Central that day, they made 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, who became known as the Little Rock Nine, were among the first black students in the country to attend an all-white school. It was a pivotal and iconic moment in the civil rights movement.
“[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 humiliation, threats, and violence daily. Students spat on her and pushed her down the stairs, then knocked books out of her hands and kicked her when she picked them up.
Despite the attacks she had to endure, Carlotta stayed strong. “I considered my tormentors to be ignorant people,” she says. “They did not understand that I had a right to be at Central.”
Disturbing images of the Little Rock Nine dominated national news coverage and fueled public support for integration. “When people saw what was going on, they were genuinely horrified,” Michael Brenes, a historian at Yale University, told TFK.
The crisis at Central sparked school desegregation nationwide, says Brenes. But in 2016, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a study that found many schools in the U.S. still divided along racial and economic lines.
LaNier hopes young people will continue to stand up for racial justice. “We still have work to do,” she says. “We have to make sure the progress we’ve made is not reversed.”