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It is said that history is written by the victors. That may be true, but it is also written by those who bear witness.
The slim body of literature on the subject of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High just expanded, with books by those most directly affected by events: two of the Little Rock Nine.
Fifty-two years after that fateful fall of 1957, Carlotta Walls LaNier and Dr. Terrence Roberts are publishing books about their experience. LaNier and Roberts are finally telling their stories, sharing their unique perspectives, and shining a light on this watershed moment in the Civil Rights movement. Theirs are intimate and powerful accounts that take readers through that rocky year and well beyond it.
A 52nd anniversary symposium, “Speaking the Truth: Social Issues and Politics in the 21st Century,” is being held Sept. 24-25 by Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site in conjunction with the release of these gripping memoirs.
“A Mighty Long Way”
A reporter recently spoke to LaNier from her Englewood, Colo., home about her book “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School,” published this month by Ballantine/One World.
She said that for the past 15 years, she's been asked to write her own story but that the timing wasn't right until now. “I had been encouraged by a number of people to do it … [but] I had good reasons for not doing it. I'm not what you call a writer, but I now understand what writers mean when they say they bleed. At times, I felt that way. … It was tough, but it's been good for me.” Of the end result, she said, “I'm very happy it has been accomplished.”
In “A Mighty Long Way,” she revisits those tumultuous days at Central and offers revelations about the Little Rock Nine story, including why it was important to clear her friend Herbert Mont's name in the much-publicized bombing of her family's home.
LaNier does not speak for the Nine, but writes only of her own journey. “There are nine individuals with nine different stories,” she said.
The story both informs and inspires; hers has been a life full of accomplishments, among them sitting on the board of her alma mater, the University of Northern Colorado; founding her own real estate brokerage firm, LaNier and Co., and raising two children. She continues to speak across the country, and, like all the Nine, was presented the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Clinton. She holds two honorary doctorate degrees.
LaNier has returned to Little Rock often, to see family, for her work with the Little Rock Nine Foundation, and for the 40th and 50th anniversaries of her entrance into Central. Each time, she still visits her childhood home on Valentine Street. She said of coming back, “It's a good feeling. I got a lot of encouragement there at the LRCH historic site to put my story in writing.”
Asked if, as a 14-year-old, she realized the significance of her choice to attend Central, she said, “I knew it was a change and a positive one.” To her, she said, choosing to enter Central “was a no-brainer.”
“The real reason I went,” she added, “was because I wanted access to the best education available.” Her continuing belief in the importance of education is a topic she addresses at length in her book.
She also discusses the profound impact that President Obama's achievement has had on her personally. Of his presidency, she said, “It speaks to the country wanting to make a change.”
She continues, “Our president speaks of service in almost every one of his speeches. Each one of us can all give back in some form or fashion. We can all give something. And it doesn't have to be something big, but we all have a gift ... to be able to do something for our community. So do it.”
Ultimately, said LaNier, “That's all any of us really wants, to be recognized as a person, to give our best to our community and to our country.”
“Lessons from Little Rock”
Roberts' account, “Lessons from Little Rock,” is set to be released in October by Butler Center Books. In it Roberts, a professor of psychology, details his childhood in the segregated South, and the effect it had on him.
After a racial incident in a local hamburger place in the early 1950s, 13-year-old Roberts was able to find the resolve that would lead him to Central and beyond. He writes that, even as a youngster, he had a “growing sense of the evils of segregation.”
In a recent telephone interview from
his California home, Roberts elaborated: “I think I always knew and
understood what the dynamics were. It wasn't confusing. It's something
that was part of my life from day one. I was born in Little Rock.”
What he could not understand, he said, “was how ‘we the people' could have come to such a state of being.”
He stated matter-of-factly, “Growing up in Little Rock as a black person, you really had to mature very quickly ... you could not hang on to the innocence of childhood very long because the expectations were so minimal for black kids, and we were literally dispensable. We could have been killed, and there would have been no repercussions.”
Asked why he waited until now to tell his story, Roberts explained, “Part of the problem was that along the way as I would bump into some emotional debris, it became impossible to finish it. So I would have to put it away and get back to it ... but I continued to work on it.”
Retiring last year from a faculty position at Antioch University in Los Angeles enabled him to do just that. He said the writing process was at times painful but also cathartic. “It included reflection and introspection ... and it also gave me opportunities to reconnect with people as I began to remember things. It was a very interesting process.”
Roberts said he hopes that the symposium will explore strategies to improve race relations and education. “It's a universal need. Across the states we are in big trouble in terms of education ... we need to create opportunities for people to learn how to think,” he said.
“I think we're in a situation now that if we want to change, we can. It's just a matter of gathering the will and commitment to do it.”
How at such a young age he was able to summon that kind of will is nothing short of remarkable. “As I look back, especially as I look at some of the archival photos, I'm shocked myself at how calm I seem to be,” Roberts said. “It occurred to me that already I had developed a sense that I really needed to pay attention to what was going on, to try to get a handle on things, to try to come up with responses that made sense not just for myself but for the people around me.”
“I don't know all the answers,” Roberts continued, “but I think one very important thing I did know and still do know is that what other people say is simply a message about who they happen to be. … It doesn't matter what the words are, what the phrases are. … it's all definitive of the speaker.” In “Lessons,” Roberts writes, “Even as a fifteen year old I had learned that people tell you who they are by what they say to you. And also, what they say has absolutely nothing to do with you. The messages I was getting from many of the white kids at Central were clear, unmistakable statements that they were infected with racism.”
“Remember Little Rock”
Award-winning author Paul Robert Walker will also be on hand during the symposium to sign copies of his recent book “Remember Little Rock,” part of a series for children ages 9-12 published by National Geographic in January.
Walker's book gives voice to some of the white students whose stories he felt had not been told. “I bring a certain objectivity, but I also have a deep commitment to social justice,” Walker said from his Escondido, Calif., residence. “I don't have a personal agenda; I just want to be in service of the story.”
He stresses, “One of the goals in this book, one of the things National Geographic does and I do personally, is we try to be very even-handed and not go on with any preconceived notions.”
“When I started researching it,” said Walker, “I was absolutely blown away by the story.” In “Remember,” he includes personal interviews with many of those who attended the 50th anniversary celebration in 2007, which is where he met and befriended Terrence Roberts (who provides the introduction for the book). “I picked him because he was the tall guy,” joked Walker in explaining why he chose Roberts to write the intro (both are over 6 feet).
Walker's visit will be his third trip to the city. “I've come to love Little Rock; the people are so hospitable and friendly. ... I feel like I have a lot of friends there.” He adds, “I don't think I've ever done a book where I've made so many friends. … It's going to be a reunion for us. I'm really proud to be part of it.”