Monday, January 12, 2009

Little Rock Nine Set Foundation for Obama

by Kim Segal and John Zarrella
CNN
January 12, 2009

Carlotta Walls LaNier points out the only two African-Americans in her senior class as she flips through her high school yearbook. She pauses when she sees the picture on a page dedicated to "Integration."

It's been nearly five decades since LaNier graduated from Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.

"It shows how the 101st were on the grounds of the school," says LaNier.

In 1957, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, an elite Army unit, escorted LaNier and eight other African-American students into the all-white public high school. The students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine, were taunted and threatened by an angry mob.

"We knew we could not participate in extracurricular activities," recalls LaNier. "There was one who could have been in the band, one who could have been on track. I was the one who played basketball ... I couldn't do that."

Back then, LaNier thought once the doors of equality were open it wouldn't be long before an African-American became president.

"I had hoped to see something like that in the next 10 or 15 years when I was in high school but that didn't happen," says LaNier.

What has happened is a new generation of students walks the halls at Central High. Even though the exterior looks the same as it did during integration -- the interior would be almost unrecognizable to LaNier and the other Little Rock Nine.

Today, the sea of mostly white faces has disappeared. The hallways are now filled with a more racially diverse student body. Students take a class to learn about the school's history and many say it's given them a greater appreciation for racial tolerance.

"Now it's definitely hard to imagine -- you walk into the halls and you see people of all different races are in the hallway. And in addition, the majority of our school is African-American now," points out Afshar Sanati, student body president. "It is hard for me to walk inside the school every day and see how this place could have been such a hostile environment for nine African-American students."

LaNier is still humble when she reflects on her experience.

"We all knew that we were giving up something for a bigger cause and [we were] happy that we did it," says LaNier. "Because it has been 51 years, I think they were baby steps now. But they were big steps then."

The steps taken by the Little Rock Nine were so big, in fact, they received personal invitations to attend President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration.

"I think the Little Rock Nine set the foundation," says student Sarah Karney. "I don't think [Obama's election] could have happened without them."

Today, many students at Central High see themselves as the beneficiaries of an Obama presidency.

"Him being president means there actually is a chance for anyone to do what they want to do if they work hard enough," says Helena Liu, who says she doesn't see race when she looks at Obama.

"It doesn't depend on your race -- it depends on who you are, the quality of your character," says DeIvory Howard.

"[We've] got to get past just the color of our skins being newsworthy. It's really about all the things we knew we could do for this country and now we have the opportunity to show it and it's going to come through his leadership," says LaNier. "And, we're looking forward to that."

Senior Chris Bell couldn't agree more.

"This election proves that this America is just not the old America. It shows that America is ready for something different," says Bell. "I just think ... that's amazing."

© 2009 Cable News Network

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