DUS Colorful Stories: See Me, Hear Me
Carlotta Walls LaNier
C ivil rights pioneer, Carlotta Walls LaNier, is a testament to the power and importance of education in the pursuit of personal and collective goals. As the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine,LaNier’s participation in the desegregation of public schools was a turning point in the fight against racial oppression.
1942 in Little Rock, Arkansas, LaNier’s love of learning is attributed to her parents, Juanita and Cartelyou Walls, who taught their children that the road to success was through education. “My parents always said, ‘Be prepared to go through the door whether there’s a crack in the door or the door is flung wide open,” LaNier proudly recalled.
LaNier was a remarkable student who excelled in her classes at Dunbar Junior High School. Her Black teachers did their best to prepare students for success, employing unconventional methods and creativity to counter poor conditions. Used textbooks and lack of adequate funding for Black schools prevented LaNier from reaching her full academic potential, so when NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) President Daisy Bates recruited students for the integration of Little Rock Central High School, LaNier volunteered.
After slavery’s abolition in 1865, many southern states enactedracially oppressive Jim Crow laws, legalizing racial segregation and prohibiting Blacks from using the same public facilities or attending the same schools. Organizations such as the NAACP tried to persuade lawmakers to enact laws that would protect Blacks from lynching and systematic oppression.
Modern society is permeated by the post-slavery enforcement of oppressive laws. Racially discriminative practices among financial, judicial, governmental, and educational institutions are evidenced by disparities in wealth, income, criminal justice, employment, housing, healthcare, political power, and education.
In 1930, the NAACP joined forces with civil rights attorney, Thurgood Marshall, to attack Jim Crow laws at their weakest point: education. A case known as Brown v. Board of Education resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that segregated schoolswas unconstitutional.
LaNier knew that educational segregation was illegal, “I didn’t fully know the consequences of what we were about to do, but I knew that I had the right to attend. I knew the law,” she said. Believing that she could compete with anyone if given the opportunity, LaNier walked boldly along a path paved by her predecessors.
On September 4, 1957,LaNier and her classmates faced a mob of angry white segregationists. The students were turned away by armed Arkansas National Guardsmen under orders from Governor Orval Faubus. LaNier and the other students were instructed to stay home, but she was concerned that she would fall behind during the time away from school.
“Not only did I have to be twice as good to do well, I had to be a super-negro to compete!” saidLaNier. The students were given coursework and were tutored by a group of professors from the Philander Smith College. On September 23, 1957, the students made another attempt to enter Central High School. “Students were jumping out of the windows, so we were spirited out; we were told to hide under blankets in the back seat of a car.”
On September 24, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower deposed Governor Faubus’ power over the Arkansas National Guard, deploying the 101st Airborne Division to escort the students into the school. 1,200 soldiers with bayonets stood guard daily, an image thatLaNier hopes to never witness again.
She excelled during her first year at Central High School despite hostility from white classmates. In 1958, Governor Faubus invoked state laws to stall desegregation. Little Rock’s high schools were closed for an entire year. Once again,LaNier, who refused to fall behind, worked twice as hard, enrolling in correspondence courses and attending summer school programs to keep up.
The period, known as “The Lost Year,” ended with a declaration from a federal district court. When schools reopened andLaNier returned to classes, her family’s home was bombed. Undeterred by the bombing, LaNier publicly vowed to finish high school, “Or die trying.”
Refusing to quit,LaNier was determined to obtain a diploma. She became the first black woman to graduate from Central High School; immediately enrolling at Michigan State University. In her sophomore year, she received a letter from her parents; they’d moved from Little Rock to Kansas City because when her father was unable to find work. LaNier blamed herself for her family’s misfortune.
During a vacation to Colorado,LaNier discovered a less oppressive environment; she felt at home in Denver and decided to relocate. She invited her father to visit, but after realizing that he could find work, he relocated with LaNier’s mother and sister.
LaNier graduated from Colorado State College in 1968 and began working at the YWCA as a program administrator for teens. In 1977, she founded her own real estate brokerage company, and has worked as a professional real estate broker for over 30 years.
LaNier and the Little Rock Nine have received numerous awards for their courageous acts, including the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, the Lincoln Leadership Prize, and the Congressional Gold Medal. LaNier has received four honorary doctorate degrees; she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2004 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2015.
In 1999,LaNier and her famed classmates established the Little Rock Nine Foundation to advance the principles of excellence in education. The foundation operates in partnership with the Clinton School for Public Service, awarding post-graduate scholarships to students studying education and community service.
LaNier refused to speak about her experiences for 30 years. In 2009, realizing the importance of sharing her story, she published a memoir entitled, A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School. LaNier’s story is one of healing and reconciliation. Despite the hardships endured by her family, she does not regret her decision to actively integrate education. “We live in a global society. We need to understand how to interact with other people. Our success is exhibited by a classroom of children that do not look the same.”
Even with increased diversity in the classroom, the U.S. is facing an education crisis with a widening opportunity gap for at-risk students.LaNier is confident that the collective efforts of young people will have a tremendous impact on education in the future. “Young people are mobilizing other young people,” she said—referencing the courageous survivors of the Parkland High School Shooting. She believes that young people will harness their voting power and create sustainable education reform.
LaNier’s Central High School diploma is featured at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture along with her grade card and the dress she wore on the first day of school.
The fearless actions of the Little Rock Nine changed the course of history and created a wealth of opportunity for millions of children living in the United States.LaNier, a living legend, urges young people to stay committed to the social progress initiated by the men and women who put their lives on the line to make changes and open doors for Black people. “We have accomplished a great deal,” she said, “Now we have to hold onto it.”
Ollie Marie Phason
On June 9, 1993, Ollie Marie Phason received a devastating phone call that would change the course of her life. Her 6-year-old son, Broderick Bell Jr., had been shot during a drive-by shooting. The incident galvanized the Mile High City amid a surge of violent gang activity in the early 1990s, and Broderick’s image was used as the face of Denver’s notorious “Summer of Violence,” a time marked by the senseless killing and injury of dozens of innocent people.
Broderick survived the shooting, but Phason lives with the trauma and emotional scars from the egregious attack. In her upcoming memoir entitled, The Summer of Violence, she shares her inspirational story of healing as she recalls the summer that challenged her faith and changed her life.
Phason’s Summer of Violence began on May 15, 1993, when her father, Oliver, disappeared without a trace. For weeks, her family posted flyers and searched tirelessly, but as time passed without his reappearance, they began to fear the worst.
In the weeks after his disappearance, her oldest daughter, Anika, was targeted by a group of girls from a dangerous street gang. Upon leaving her house one day, the girls surrounded Anika, shouting obscenities and threats. Anika ran inside and told Phason, who walked to the corner with her daughter to investigate.
“I was raised that if you fight one person from the gang, you’ll never have to worry about them again; they’ll leave you alone,” Phason said. The girls ran out of a neighboring house and pulled out knives, attempting to jump them. The next day, she signed Anika up for self-defense classes at Gove Junior High School.
Gove offered summer programming for all ages, so Phason enrolled all her children in lessons; ballet for her youngest daughter, Nakia, karate for Broderick, and summer camp for her youngest son, DeVaun.
Anika was driving home with her siblings after their first day of lessons when she pulled over to greet a friend. Suddenly, three carloads of teenage girls sped down the street, shooting indiscriminately at houses on both sides. Realizing that they were caught in the middle of a drive-by shooting, they ducked to escape the spray of bullets. Broderick peeked up and was struck in the forehead by a 9mm bullet.
Anika frantically delivered the news of her brother’s injury to her mother on the phone. At the hospital, the surgeon told Phason that he’d removed the swelling and fragments from Broderick’s brain, but could not remove the bullet. Broderick was on life support, and the prognosis was bleak.
“I thought he was going to die, and I didn’t want to see him that way; I wanted to remember him happy, with his karate uniform on,” she said. She sat in the waiting room and watched local news reports of the drive-by with images of her smiling son. People arrived at the hospital in droves to show support for the family. “I fell on my face and screamed out to God, asking him to save Broderick. I wanted to see a living God.”
She walked to her son’s room; seeing his swollen head wrapped in bandages, she yelled, “Bring those cameras in here so these gang members can see what they’ve done to me!”
In the months preceding the Summer of Violence, Denver residents were terrorized by random drive-by shootings. It took the images of 6-year-old Broderick on life support to evoke a national response.
After the shooting, Denver’s former Mayor Wellington Webb held a press conference outside Phason’s home, declaring, “Enough is enough!” Webb announced a crackdown on gangs and lobbied for stricter gun control laws.
Devastated by the shooting, Lieutenant Armedia Gordon considered retiring from her position as supervisor of the Denver Police Department’s homicide unit; instead she went on to become the first black division chief of special operations, befriending Broderick for life.
Governor Roy Romer introduced a bill that criminalized the juvenile possession of a handgun. Republican lawmakers passed a modified version of the bill, providing $40 million for the construction of new juvenile detention centers and allowing juveniles to be given adult sentences. Over 300 juveniles were arrested for gun crimes in 1993 under the bill, which was heavily opposed by the National Rifle Association.
Upon waking up from his coma and regaining the ability to speak, Broderick turned to Phason and said, “I saw Granddaddy!” The search for her father had been put on hold as the family awaited Broderick’s recovery. Two years after telling Phason that he’d seen his grandfather in a grave in the woods, his body was found buried in a shallow grave.
Three months after the discovery of his body, Anika revealed that she had been abused by her stepfather for years. The news sent her into a depression cured only by forgiveness.
Throughout Phason’s tribulations, her faith in God allowed her to support her daughter and care for her son, whose miraculous recovery allowed him to return to school in September 1993. After living as a Buddhist all her life, she developed an urge to learn about God after her father’s disappearance. In her grief, she found solace through prayer, which has sustained her through a difficult journey of healing.
In the 25 years since the Summer of Violence, Phason has experienced symptoms of PTSD and sympathizes with survivors of violent crimes. She urges people to remember the survivors of mass shootings and to consider their hardships as they try to live normal lives.
“We have memorials for the deceased, but it’s the survivors who need prayers for healing; their lives are forever changed.”
Though she no longer advocates for political issues, Phason is an active supporter of organizations that help at-risk women. She shares her inspirational testimony with the survivors of violent crimes.
“My mission now is to talk about how I healed. The first part of healing is forgiveness,” she says.
Phason was forced to forgive her father’s unknown killer and her ex-husband. With the bullet still lodged in his head, there was no evidence to prosecute Broderick’s shooter, leaving her to make peace despite not receiving justice. “The Lord told me that it’s not my business. I had to forgive,” she said.
After using her platform to call for gun control, death threats forced her out of the neighborhood where she grew up. She now questions the effectiveness of the laws, which she likens to putting a band-aid on a major wound.
“They’re building more facilities to put these kids in, and when they come out they’re institutionalized. They learn more while they’re incarcerated than they would if they were on the streets.”
The City of Denver continues to combat urban violence with gang reduction initiatives and various juvenile intervention and diversion programs, though increased crime rates are associated with income inequality and crippling social exclusion.
Phason remains hopeful that lawmakers will find plausible solutions for the gun-control crises amid worsening conditions. She believes in the power of prayer and stands in the gap for survivors. She urges community members to do their part in protecting the community, “The issues may be a little beyond one person, but it only takes one person on the front lines for things to change.”.
Editor’s note: These stories and others will be shared at Denver Urban Spectrum’s Colorful Stories...See Me, Hear Me luncheon on November 3, 2018 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Renaissance Hotel on Quebec Street in Denver. For more information, sponsorship opportunities, or tickets, call 303-292-6446, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.eventbrite.com.