LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas may not have the Washington Monument, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge or Mount Rushmore, but within its borders sits the nation’s most painful symbol of racial intolerance — and, perhaps, its proudest shrine to the U.S. civil rights movement: Little Rock Central High School.
On the morning of Sept. 23, 1957, an angry, screaming mob of more than 1,000 whites — defying the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering integration of all public schools — refused entrance to nine promising black students who had been specifically invited to attend the all-white high school.
After violence broke out, the state’s segregationist governor, Orval Faubus, ordered the nine removed. But the next day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the brave nine black students back to class — under the protection of the newly federalized 10,000-man Arkansas National Guard.
Yet even though they had finally won their day in court, the nine faced constant verbal and physical abuse from their hostile white schoolmates (one black student, Melba Pattillo, had acid thrown into her eyes).
The conflict forced a constitutional standoff between Faubus and the federal government. The following September, the governor ordered all schools in Little Rock closed in what came to be known as the “Lost Year.” Black and white students alike suffered, though the black community became the target of many vicious hate crimes.
Eventually the Little Rock Nine graduated and moved on with their lives. The crisis spawned two made-for-television movies and in 1996, seven of the Little Rock Nine appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where they confronted several white students who had tormented them so many years before.
In 1999, President Clinton presented each of these heroes with a Congressional Gold Medal, and 10 years later, they witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president.
Two of those nine, Ernest Green and Carlotta Walls LaNier, recently met with more than 40 Washington-based foreign ambassadors as local TV cameramen and news photographers crowded the entrance to Little Rock Central High School. Today, LRCHS serves 2,450 students and is the only functioning high school in the United States to be located within the boundaries of a national historic site.
“Your attendance is a historic moment for Little Rock,” Green, 71, told the ambassadors. “As a 16-year-old trying to graduate from high school — through all the turmoil of that year — I had only one goal in mind: If I completed high school here, we would have broken an important barrier for other young African-Americans to follow.”
Capricia Penavic Marshall, U.S. protocol chief at the State Department, organized the ambassadors’ three-day visit to Arkansas in late October as part of the government’s “Experience America” program. In addition to LRCHS, the trip also included a private dinner with former President Bill Clinton, a barbecue at the governor’s mansion with Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe and a tour of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
“The events that took place here in 1957 changed the situation for many people, not only in the United States but around the world. It gave them the impetus to move beyond the barriers,” said Marshall. “I have known these two wonderful folks for years. It’s part of their duty to continue the story.”
LaNier is today a real-estate broker in Denver. She’s also written a book, “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.” But back in 1957, all that mattered was getting through the most difficult year of her life.
“I wanted to apply to universities throughout the country, and I knew that if I had Little Rock Central High School on that transcript, it would open up a few more doors for me,” she told the VIPs. “So my focus was to maintain a good grade point average. I needed that diploma to validate all the things we had gone through.”
Recalled Green: “There was an atmosphere of terror. Students who wanted to befriend us were also intimidated. They and their parents were threatened.”
But things obviously have changed.
“If you had told me 55 years ago that I’d still be talking about my high school today, I’d say you’d be absolutely crazy,” he said. “But I’m proud to be a part of the Little Rock Nine. We lost one of the members, Jefferson Thomas, a year and a half ago, but the eight of us still here are a very tight group. We all revert to being 16 or 17 years old when we get together.”
In 1958, Green became the first African-American to graduate from LRCHS; Martin Luther King Jr. attended his commencement ceremony. Green earned a master’s degree in sociology from Michigan State University — graduating in 1964 at the top of his class — and went on to become assistant secretary of housing and urban affairs under President Jimmy Carter.
“It was an experience we obviously didn’t sign up for. But having gone through it, we’re proud to have you hear our story. Hopefully there’s something universal about it, transcending Little Rock and black and white. It’s all about opportunities,” he said. “I recently came back here for my 50th high-school reunion and couldn’t find anybody who would admit they were part of the mean crowd. Today they’re all our closest friends.”
Little Rock Central High has also changed in other ways. These days, LRCHS is 54 percent black, 31 percent white and 14 percent “other races,” principal Nancy Rosseau said.
“That ‘other’ is what has become an amazing portion of our student body,” said Rosseau, now in her 11th year as principal. “Our students speak 27 languages at home. That’s quite a change from 1957. We have the first Mandarin Chinese program in the state, all the way up to advanced placement. We also teach French, Spanish, German and Latin. If you notice, about 25% of our students are magnet students — part of our international studies program. They come to this high school from outside of our attendance zone because they want to get a global education.”
Earlier this year, LaNier, 69, donated to Washington’s Smithsonian the dress she wore to her first two days of school. That, along with her diploma, her report card and other memorabilia will be displayed in the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in 2015.
Deborah Mae Lovell, ambassador of the tiny Caribbean nation of Antigua & Barbuda, spoke for all the visiting diplomats.
“Whenever I hear your story, I burst into tears,” she told the two civil rights icons. “I’m honored to be in your presence.”