Students need to stay vigilant when it comes to racial equality. That was the messge Wednesday in a speech at the University of North Florida by a key figure in U.S. Civil Rights history.
Carlotta Walls LaNier was the youngest member a member of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-Americans who in 1957 drew national attention for being the first black students to attend Arkansas’ Little Rock Central High School.
The Congressional Gold Medal recipient said while the U.S. has made strides toward racial equity, the work remains unfinished.
“Progress has taken place but we cannot just sit back and say that it’s done because it’s not done,” she said. “There’s so much more to do.”
From WJCT’s Passport Video Archive: Remembering The Courage Of The Little Rock Nine
LaNier told students what it was like as a 14-year-old sophomore to face an angry mob and the Arkansas National Guard, which the Governor ordered to keep the nine from entering the school.
"I say to young people stay vigilant, to understand what's going on, and to speak up," she said. "They have a have."
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional in its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education. But people in many parts of the country, especially in southern states, resisted racially integrated schools.
Three years later, Little Rock High School’s board agreed to comply with the ruling. The board put a plan in place to open the school’s doors to black students, despite pushback from white families. LeNier was in the first cohort of black students, the Little Rock Nine.
“I know that what I did was the right thing. I did it because I wanted the best available and that school provided,” she said.
LaNier said an angry mob prevented them from entering the school on the first day of school. Several weeks later, on their second attempt on September 23, the mob was joined by the Arkansas National Guard on the orders of the governor.
“I felt the Arkansas National Guard was there to protect all citizens,” she said. “Unfortunately, we quickly found out the Arkansas National Guard was really there to keep us out.”
The tense situation caught national headlines, which prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to take control of the Arkansas National Guard and deploy the 101st Airborne to escort the students.
The now 76-year-old was the first black female to graduate from the school. She said the first time she publicly spoke about her experience was at a small town in Colorado some 30 years later.
"I'll never forget this young man who said to me in the back of the room with a red face, 'why is it that we don't know about this?'"
LeNier said that incident inspired her to speak go to schools and speak to young people. It was also in part why she authored the book "A Might Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Central High School."
LaNiera now serves as the president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to create equal opporunity in education.