Photo by: Henoc Kivuye
For most students, the desegregation movement is merely history scrawled into textbooks – last Monday the stories came alive when the campus hosted Dr. Terrance Roberts and Carlotta Walls LaNier, two members of the Little Rock Nine.
“I think it’s interesting when people who actually lived in a historical event are able to relay it and tell us how they felt about it,” freshman Lexi Lambert said.
Gary Jones, multicultural and service learning coordinator, reached out to Roberts and LaNier and acted as the main liaison for their visit.
“We wanted to have them here because they signify what perseverance and determination look like,” Jones said.
Roberts and LaNier were kept busy with various visits. They made a special appearance at Jones’ home church, who put on a play about their journey.
“Gary’s wife Jillian was writing a play to be done at the Church of Christ they attend,” President John deSteiguer said. “Gary was looking over her shoulder and saw that she was doing a play about the Little Rock Nine and Gary thought to himself, ‘It would be really cool if I could get some of the Little Rock Nine to come to campus.’ So he brought the issue to several people and he was encouraged enthusiastically to try to do that.”
Soon after, Roberts and LaNier scheduled their visit.
“One of the other highlights of the day for me was the end of chapel, when Mrs. LaNier and Dr. Roberts were brought up on the stage and Gary introduced them to the audience and the student body gave them a standing ovation,” deSteiguer said. “That really inspires me.”
Later that day LaNier had a formal interview with President deSteiguer.
In the interview LaNier outlined her story – talking about the trials she endured simply by attending, and how she became the first female African-American student to graduate from Little Rock Central High School.
“We walked to the corner of the school and there we encountered the Arkansas National Guard,” LaNier said. “There was this mob across the street … I thought that the Arkansas National Guard was there to protect the citizens … until I heard the commanding officer say to the white minister … to turn around and send them back home … That’s when we knew that they were there to keep us out instead of protect us from whatever might happen.”
The students returned to their homes but did not stand quietly by.
Two and a half weeks later they returned to school, sneaking in through a side door while 1,000 members of the community gathered outside.
They were allowed to attend classes at the high school, but were prevented from participating in any extracurricular activities.
During 11th grade, the school she attended was closed to prevent the schools from being integrated, forcing the students to fend for themselves in pursuing their own education.
During the process LaNier’s family endured multiple hardships, encountering difficulty maintaining work and surviving the bombing of their home.
“When [LaNier] stayed at the lecture, she was talking about being able to forgive people and be able to move forward,” Jones said. “She said, ‘I wasn’t taught to hate; I didn’t know how to hate.’ So I thought that was really really profound as well.”
Having two Little Rock Nine members on campus made a lasting impression on both staff members and students.
“I really like the historical significance of it,” freshman Kate Edwards said. “[It] gives me hope, thinking that if they can make it through high school in such conditions, I can make it through college with jobs and schoolwork and stuff.”
This was exactly the impression that the Little Rock Nine members wanted to leave with the students who heard them speak.
“We have accomplished a great deal in this country, I don’t want to belittle that, but that’s not to say that we are through, because we are not,” LaNier said. “There’s so much more to achieve in this country and I do have a lot of faith in our young people who are … more open-minded than those from before. The difference that I do see is that they don’t know history and that’s what bothers me … Once they know who they are, they can do anything that they put their minds to.”
deSteiguer praised their faith in every individual.
“I love Mrs. LaNier’s quote where she said, ‘Those who change the world, those who are really brave, are just ordinary people doing extraordinary things,’” deSteiguer said. “I hope students gather from this that as ordinary as we might think we are, we really can do things that are extraordinary and can make this world a better place and can make a difference in the lives of others.”
Jones had a personal story he thought truly showed the character of these two people.
“[After the lecture Dr. Roberts] thanked me for everything, and then he said, ‘There’s two things that I want you to remember,’” Jones said. “He said, ‘Number one, you can accomplish anything.’ He said ‘Number two, don’t ever lose my number’.”
LaNier and Roberts both proved they are far from done, as they continue to bring history alive for the next generation.
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