Carlotta Walls Lanier asked students at McCluer South-Berkeley High School in Ferguson to imagine a helicopter circling above and 1,200 troops from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division on their campus.
This is what life was like when she was the youngest of nine African-American students to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957 amid mobs of white segregationists.
“I had a guard who took me from one classroom to the next,” Walls Lanier told students gathered in the school’s auditorium. “But I was determined to get my education.”
This was the core of Walls Lanier's message to students.
“To get all the education they possibly can and to graduate from high school and move on to the next level,” Walls Lanier said.
Her visit was put together by the National Alliance of Faith and Justice and the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice, both of which are nonprofits. More than 1,000 students from McCluer South-Berkeley and Jennings Jr. High took part in the two-day program, which is part of a campaign called “Take A Stand To Keep A Seat.”
The program uses a curriculum, called “Pen or Pencil,” with pen standing for penitentiary and pencil representing education. Through videos and statistics, it stresses to students that sliding off the rails academically could set them on a course for trouble with the law. Along the way it recounts first-hand stories from the civil rights era as motivation for students.
“Kids need to be educated about why they are where they are today,” Walls Lanier said. “Sometimes they get it in school or in their homes, a lot of the time they don’t.”
Edith Lee-Payne also spoke with students. She was 12 years old when she attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A photo of Lee-Payne carrying a banner for the march is one of the iconic images of the event and has been used in countless textbooks and documentaries.
“I see these children and I see myself,” Lee-Payne said, adding that taking part in the civil rights movement underscored her desire to complete her education.
Sophomore Charlene Davis said hearing about the past helps her rethink the future.
“It encourages me to stay on track,” Davis said. “When I want to slide off I can remember today they did all this and I’m not going to take it granted.”
Davis said it’s a message that resonated with her classmates.
“No matter what you’re doing and how good you’re doing it, it always makes you want to take a step up,” said sophomore Walter Shannon. “To know that these people fought so hard for you and they don’t even know you, you’ve never even met these people.”