Carlotta Walls LaNier was met with a standing ovation from a nearly full audience as she took to the podium to share her experience as one of nine students to integrate Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.
“It wasn’t just a black history. It was a story for all of our country’s people,” LaNier said of the school’s integration and the civil rights movement at large.
In 1957, LaNier was the youngest of nine black students who were the first to enroll in the traditionally all-white Little Rock Central High School. The students, now called the Little Rock Nine, were met with slurs, epithets and physical abuse.
“Envision this school with fixed bayonets, with military up and down the hallways — that’s how I went to school,” LaNier recalled, her calm voice deep with emotion. “And I don’t wish that on anyone.”
The talk by LaNier was part of a two-hour event that discussed the impact of the civil rights movement and the road to integration, and was co-sponsored by African Student Programs (ASP) and the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs James Sandoval. It was followed by a candlelight vigil at the Bell Tower to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., organized by UCR’s Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Pi Epsilon chapter.
“I just really appreciate being able to see her and hear her experience first hand. It’s more than the history book,” third-year political science law and society major Rose Meregini expressed.
“We still have a ways to go,” Director of African Student Programs Ken Simons said, explaining the importance of the UCR campus hearing LaNier’s message. “Everybody’s affected by it … To sweep it (racism) under the rug, to me, is the continuation of that dysfunctional part of our history.”
Other speakers included Simons, Dean of the Bourns College of Engineering Reza Abbaschian and distinguished professor of history and education V. P. Franklin.
During the event, LaNier was presented with a painting by Charles Bibbs, a Riverside-based artist whose works discuss the African American experience. The painting was titled, “With Deliberate Speed,” a reference to the language used in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that called for public schools to desegregate.
“This is the school that we choose to go to,” La Nier stated to close her presentation. “And it is our right to do so.”
UCR’s Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Pi Epsilon chapter followed the talk by leading a group of around 30 people in a vigil to observe the memory Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Each person was given a candle to hold, and the group observed a brief moment of silence as audio from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech played.
The event was designed to kick off Black History Month, which occurs in February. HUB Director Todd Wingate solicited suggestions for speakers from a number of organizations, including African Student Programs (ASP). Plans to bring LaNier to UCR were discussed in fall quarter and finalized immediately before winter break.
“He (Wingate) had already thought about Carlotta Walls (LaNier) and when I heard about it, of course I co-signed off on that immediately,” Simons said. “My job was to see if we could get her here as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations.”
As her talk drew to a close, LaNier urged students to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. by speaking up for the ostracized, being kind to each other, and committing to public service.
“All these things begin in a dream,” LaNier said. “And then you turn that dream into a plan. And then you work that plan. That’s how dreams become realities.”