The United States’ education system is still plagued with inequalities, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine told an audience at the Marvin Center earlier this week.
Carlotta Walls LaNier spoke Monday night about her experience as one of the first black students to attend an all-white public school following the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education. She said even though public schools were desegregated more than 50 years ago, the U.S. education system still deals with racial issues.
“You just don’t assume because there is a President Barack Obama, that racism is dead, because it’s not,” LaNier said. “It is something that is there, it’s going to be there.”
After the court-ruled desegregation, the nine black students that enrolled in Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., who later became known as the Little Rock Nine, faced racial slurs and violence as they attempted to attend the school in September 1957. The governor of Arkansas ordered the National Guard to prevent the group from entering Central High School. Following weeks of chaos and crises, President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort and protect LaNier and her eight peers as they finally entered the school.
“We soon came to understand that getting into the school was half the battle,” LaNier said.
She explained that it was “a year like no other” and especially hard for their parents.
“But challenges come into our lives so we can learn lessons,” she said.
LaNier and the rest of the Little Rock Nine, who she called the “designated drivers of Brown v. Board of Education,” were invited this past January to attend the inauguration of President Obama as special guests.
“Way back then, none of us could have ever predicted what would come to be,” she said.
LaNier discussed with the audience how racism and unequal education still permeates the U.S. public school system and affirmative action “is still necessary.”
The discussion, which was hosted by the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, was planned for February in honor of Black History Month, but was moved to March due to scheduling issues and now commemorates Women’s History Month instead.
“If you look around the room today at all the people that we are used to working with in class and on projects, none of this would be possible … without those initial people who were willing to fight the battle,” said Sasha Belinkie, GW’s NSCS chapter president.
A diverse crowd of more than 100 turned up to the event.
“My parents actually grew up in the South. My mother was also chosen to desegregate the schools and she actually turned it down because of all the death threats and things her family faced,” said junior Carrie Wilkins. “I find it very interesting to see people who have gone through a history that is in my family.”
LaNier also said that though doors were opened by the civil rights movement, some regression has occurred since.
“The ball was dropped with some other generations behind because of opportunities, and we forgot how we got there,” she said.
But LaNier encouraged parents to make sure their children get the best education and for other people to find opportunities to move forward with integrity, like she and the other Little Rock Nine did more than 50 years ago.
LaNier said, “When I entered Central High School, I never imagined then what a difference my decision would make to the history of the civil rights movement and in my own life.”