Tuesday, September 15, 2009

And Justice For All

I also had to share a piece that I'm really quite proud to have written. In the most recent books section of The Denver Post, you'll find my first feature for the paper, "Schooled in strength: LaNier's lessons from the Little Rock Nine."

I expected my recent interview with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin to be the highlight of my summer, although that story seems to have been mercilessly delayed by production problems. But a few weeks ago, I was tasked do an interview with Carlotta Walls LaNier, who quietly lives here in Denver. She's an incredible person and one I consider to be just as historic a figure as anybody in the Civil Rights Movement.

Most people know that in 1957, Little Rock's Central High School was forced to integrate - very nearly at gunpoint - by President Eisenhower, who federalized the Arkansas National Guard and stared down the state's intractable Governor Orval Faubus. But let me tell you, hearing that story from someone who was there is a moving experience.

Just before my own interview with her in late August, I attended a packed house at The Tattered Cover in Denver, where an enthusiastic audience came to see Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine. There were maybe 300 people in this room, and Mrs. LaNier shook every single hand and gave a moving tribute to her mother, husband and children, all of whom were there to support her.

Today, LaNier is arguably the Little Rock Nine's most vocal and public member but for years, she was understably reticent to talk to anybody about her experiences. Yet after reuniting with her classmates in 1987 for the 30th anniversary of the Little Rock action, she began to feel that her side of the story ought to be told.

She recounts her experiences in A Mighty Long Way, her memoir, co-authored by Washington Post journalist Lisa Frazier Page and forwarded by President Bill Clinton, a longtime admirer. In it, she tells not only of growing up during these turbulent times in Little Rock but also about the cost inflicted on her family and friends, her willpower to succeed when so many people were rooting for her to break down so many barriers, and her journey to make peace with her incredible past. You can read more about it in the review/interview but trust me that this book is going to outlive all of us. History is better for her sharing this story.

The most important parts of our short conversation made it into the article, but I'll share a couple of supplementary stories I found fascinating. One of my favorites was about the day that Carlotta Walls invented passive resistance all by herself.

"I might have been angry at times – and I was angry at times, " she said. "Especially at this one redhead who used to walk on the back of my heels. But I knew I could not retaliate, not that I was a fighter in that manner anyway, a physical fighter. Anyway, I knew I could not fight back so I had to come up with defensive mechanisms. After a while of dealing with her, I thought of something. So I stopped dead one time. I walked real fast during my younger days. This time, she was keeping up with me and walking on the back of my heels and I figured I’ll stop this, today. I just stopped immediately and she slammed right into me. I just had to learn to use the defensive abilities I had."

Another amazing aspect to interviewing people is getting to see other people through their eyes. When I interviewed George McGovern, you could see the delight in his eyes when he talked about going toe-to-toe with Hunter S. Thompson. In interviewing Mrs. LaNier, you could see the whole of the Civil Rights Movement, people she had known and seen with her own eyes, whether it was the amazing NAACP president Daisy Bates organizing the defense of the Little Rock Nine or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in his shirtsleeves over a plate of barbecue and a beer, mapping out the future of America in a Little Rock basement somewhere. One of her most memorable connections was the great Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown V. Board of Education in the very Supreme Court where he would later serve as Justice. She remembered being worried that the movement was losing one of its greatest assets when Lydon B. Johnson appointed Marshall as Solicitor General in 1965, but she has since changed her view.

"I thought that we were losing someone that was needed to get things changed," she remembered. "I’m now 66 myself and I look back and understand that he did the right thing. It was time for younger people to start moving on, and giving them the opportunity to take what he had done and move it to a higher level. I think that’s what we all need to do each day. I see organizations today that have always had the same public face. Teach the younger ones. Help them to take on some of this responsibility, because they have good ideas too. Get the best out of the old experience too, of course, but those things you feel were not effective, leave them behind."

The last third of A Mighty Long Way may be its most dramatic segment, as LaNier describes the devastating events of February, 1960, when her house was bombed, her father arrested, and two young black men jailed for years for a crime they didn't commit. But true to LaNier's positive nature, the book ends on a high note, as she remembers the night that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. I have to note, too, that Carlotta Walls LaNier puts her money where her mouth is. She made phone calls from Obama's Denver headquarters for more than 10 hours that day, not as any kind of celebrity but as a private citizen working hard to make things better for everybody.

"It’s not over just because Barack Obama was elected President," she said. "We all have to help him. If you notice in each one of his speeches, he brings up service all the time. I think if people got back to that, giving service to someone else, that they will feel better about themselves and aspire to do better in their daily lives whether they are getting to know other people or just being an honest citizen. I really do think positive change is coming. It's not just hot air."

I strongly encourage anyone with an interest in American history to read A Mighty Long Way and to visit and support The Little Rock Nine Foundation in its efforts to promote the ideals of education and equality for all.

2 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Congratulations! You should be proud to be covering such important news.

Anonymous said...

This was a wonderful piece. I hung on every word. I like this new genre and you are certainly suited to it.