As 16-year-old Carlotta Walls LaNier walked towards the entrance of Little Rock Central High School on September 4, 1957, she and eight of her fellow classmates met history face-to-face in the form of an angry mob and a blockade of armed Arkansas National Guardsmen. Last Wednesday, LaNier came to UTSA—unobstructed—to tell the story of the Little Rock Nine and how students can refine their character to become leaders that matter.
Roadrunner Productions hosted LaNier, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine, in the Retama auditorium on March 27.
LaNier began her speech by reliving the painful story of how she and her fellow classmates were the first African-American students to enter Little Rock Central High School after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the segregation of public schools was unconstitutional in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954. President Eisenhower, consequently, ordered federal troops to escort LaNier and her classmates into Central High despite the forces of angry mobs and Arkansas governor Orval Faub’s orders to use the National Guard to block the Little Rock Nine from entering their school.
“The freedom to educate ourselves must come first,” LaNier said to the UTSA students as she described her mindset as a 16-year-old girl trying to exercise her right to attend Central High.
LaNier centered her speech around the roles of leadership and character.
“We demonstrate leadership; we live character. Leadership is a public, external characteristic while character is a private, internal trait,” LaNier said. “Yes, we are leaders when others watch, but we remain defined by our character when no one is watching.”
LaNier wove into her presentation examples of challenges she faced at Central High as an African-American student, and how those challenges molded her character.
“Everyday was a challenge,” LaNier said. “I learned to live with people who called me names, spat on me, walked on my heels—I had to rise above it.”
“When teachers, who we assumed worked for us, on some occasions went out of their way to work against us, we had to rise above it.”
“When the small group of strident segregationists, who never stopped their bullying, would knock my books to the floor and pelt us with rock-embedded snowballs—I had to rise above it.”
Despite the adversities the Little Rock Nine endured during their integration into Central High, LaNier said it was all worth it.
UTSA students were taken aback as they heard LaNier’s arresting story. Malary Michalka, a junior interdisciplinary studies major, spoke about LaNier’s speech.
“It’s such an awesome experience to know that we got to see someone who is a part of history,” Michalka said.
LaNier also addressed her worries for America’s current political climate. She expressed her disapproval of today’s political tribalism, lack of respectful deliberation and the Trump administration.
“We have become as we were 62 years ago—anxious and worried about what lies ahead,” said LaNier.
When asked about how to engage with seemingly formidable forces of ignorance and hatred, LaNier advised UTSA students.
“Ignorance has to be educated, and you educate ignorance in different ways. One way is through non-confrontational dialogue. If you can do that, people might open up their ears and minds to you,” LaNier said.
LaNier was also asked what she viewed as an imminent threat to equal opportunity of education in the U.S.
“Unfortunately, there are people who are unable to go to the schools in their own neighborhood. Economically, all people cannot live in the neighborhoods they really want to live in. This bodes a real problem, and it all goes back to education. If you don’t have an education, then you can’t get the job that can put you in that neighborhood,” LaNier said.
LaNier challenged UTSA students to find ways to have conversations that include and value others who are different.
“Be kind to one another. All that we do, and how we treat each other, matters,” LaNier said.
She concluded her speech by saying, “I want you to have a day that matters. We always say ‘have a nice day’; I say, ‘have a day that matters.’”