LITTLE ROCK (AP) — None of the Little Rock Nine or their families fully understood the impact they would have in American history through the desegregation of the city's Central High School, Carlotta LaNier, the youngest member of the group, told college students on Friday.
Hundreds of angry whites tormented the nine students as they went to school each day for a whole year, LaNier told more than 400 students as she spoke about her 2009 memoir, "A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School," at the annual Alpha Chi national honor society convention.
"I honestly didn't think it would last that long," LaNier said. "Can you imagine having soldiers standing shoulder-to-shoulder surrounding the school? That's how we went to school, with bodyguards escorting us to and from class each day."
Asked how she mustered the courage to endure students slamming her into lockers, kicking her down the stairs and coming up with new ways to keep her out during the 1957 desegregation, she answered, "Because I was fearless."
"I considered it ignorance and I was going to rise above it," she said.
Several Little Rock Nine members have published books, but LaNier says hers is different because of her experience. She was the only one to have her home bombed, she was the youngest, at 14, and she was the only female of the group to graduate from Central High.
"We are nine individuals, nine stories — one is not greater or lesser than the other, but different," she said.
The Little Rock Nine and their families understood the impact of their silent protest, she said, when their story became the second-largest story that year to Sputnik, the first Soviet orbiter launched.
LaNier called her memoir a salute to her parents, who she said sacrificed to allow her to go to Central High. She also told students that her parents didn't know she volunteered to be one of the first black students to attend the school until she had been selected by the school board as one of 174 to enroll.
"They stayed in the background, but they instilled in me the quiet confidence and determination I had," she said.
In the book, LaNier said, she tried to show the types of students during the integration. There were the tormenters, silent supporters, open supporters and those who simply turned their back to the situation, Lanier said.
"Some of those are still acting the same way today," she said.
In March, an author writing a book about the Little Rock Nine spoke of his frustration in getting people to talk about the desegregation crisis. At the time, two white citizens of Little Rock complained that the story was being told too much.
LaNier, like several other Little Rock Nine members, said she took a while to speak but ultimately felt a responsibility to do so. She said writing the book provided her emotional relief.
"Instead of trying to sweep it under the rug, people need to acknowledge it is what happened," she said. "The chain needs to be broken. That type of attitude is what was dumped on us back then."
After Central High, LaNier graduated from the University of Northern Colorado. She founded her own real estate company and worked for 30 years as a real estate broker. She is president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation.
After her lecture she participated in an impromptu book signing.
"There's a difference between hearing about history in books and actually hearing the first-person account," said Sharon Dobbs, a junior at the University of Arkansas in Pine Bluff. "To think something like that really happened. I keep thinking, 'Could I have done that?'"