MLK keynote speaker talks about education and opportunity

In 1957, nine black high schoolers integrated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.   On Thursday, Jan. 21, the youngest of these nine, Ms. Carlotta Walls LaNier, came to WCU and spoke to a nearly full room.

Carlotta Walls LaNier speaks at WCU

Carlotta Walls LaNier speaks at WCU

The program began with a moving poem written and performed by a young man whose stage name is L3ft handD1D.  He says the poem was inspired both by a line he wrote about needing “military forces to admit our black students” and the experiences of the Little Rock Nine.  The poem spoke of how the students just wanted to learn and how they and the generations before them had suffered so much discrimination. 

Students started filling seats in the UC Grand room well before LaNier’s scheduled appearance and before the program began.  More than a hundred people attended.

When LaNier took the stage, she was welcomed with a standing ovation- which was also how she departed at the end of the night.   LaNier said that education truly is the key to success and all she ever wanted was the opportunity to “compete with everyone.” That was why she signed up to go to Little Rock Central High after the Supreme Court ruled on Brown vs the Board of Education

She described what it was like, going to an all-black high school and growing up in the Jim Crow South. LaNier had been told all her life that to get through the door of success, you have to have as much education as possible.

She knew that Little Rock Central High would hold more education and opportunities for her than an all-black school.  She would get new books instead of the old ones from the white school; there would be only two students dissecting a frog instead of “ten or twelve standing around the poor little frog.” That was why she chose to go to Central High.

LaNier also touched on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man she first met when she was 14, before he became the civil rights leader.  She said that the most enduring memory she holds of Dr. King is of him “sitting around a card table…eating BBQ ribs and drinking a beer.”

What LaNier most emphasized about Dr. King was that he wasn’t superhuman; he was an ordinary man with some extraordinary gifts.  She went on to say that everyone has gifts; people just have to ask themselves how they are using those gifts.

LaNier’s main point can be summed up with her closing statement.

“It takes ordinary people to do extraordinary things,” she told WCU students before leaving the stage.

The audience welcomed and thanked LaNier warmly, and many stayed behind to take photos or get an autograph.  Several students said the speech was amazing, one calling it “very touching” and another saying “you wanted to pay attention to learn the story.”