Dr. Terrence Roberts, a member of the revolutionary group of nine students who are called the Little Rock Nine, which played a significant role in school desegregation, spoke in Kreider Hall at noon on March 4.
A group of 17 black students, which dwindled down to nine, walked through obscenities and turmoil to get classes as teachers looked the other way and guards stood by and did nothing.”The motto was ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,'” said Roberts, about going to Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.
The Little Rock Nine entered Central High School three years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that banned segregation and ordered all state and local governments to integrate their schools, overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine from Plessy v. Ferguson. Central High School was one of the first schools to integrate.
Why did Roberts and the other members of the Little Rock Nine go through this? He did it because “thousands of people had already died in the struggle,” said Roberts, about black people in history who had fought for or who had been denied rights and freedoms.
“By saying no to that opportunity, to me [would mean] they would have died in vain,” said Roberts. One has to “think larger, beyond the self,” said Roberts. The Little Rock Nine boldly remained and played a significant part in American history.
“All nine of us had taken vows of nonviolence that year” (which were inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King), Roberts said. “You have brains. You have minds. [You] can talk and that made so much sense.” His mother taught him long ago that “harboring hatred or bitterness is not healthy.”
Roberts shared lessons learned with the audience. “You cannot color-code racism,” said Roberts. “Not every single white person you come across is an enemy. Not every single black person is a friend; it is either racism or its not.”
Another lesson is, whether negative sentiments are justified or not, “people will fight for what they believe in,” Roberts added.
“There is need to develop high-level awareness,” said Roberts. “We are a racist mindset. Until people choose not to do this, business will continue on as usual.” Discrimination can run both ways, “Just because you bump into somebody who manifests racism, it doesn’t mean that you have to write them off, it means that they have not yet progressed far enough [to] understand there is a higher level of ways of interacting with other people.”
Although “you can’t talk about progress, because there isn’t any to report,” said Roberts, “what we can talk about is the fact that the ideals still loom large.” People can do what they can to take charge of their lives today, such as “exercising your right to vote.”
After a completed school year for eight of the Little Rock Nine, the U.S. Supreme Court told Little Rock Central High School it must integrate, which led Gov. Orval Faubus to sign segregation bills that included a bill that gave him power to shut down the public schools in any part of the state. He closed down all four of Little Rock’s public high schools, which was later declared unconstitutional.
Only three of the nine graduated from Central High School, but they all remain an important part of the history of desegregation and civil rights, providing evidence of what some would go through to prevent desegregation, and how determined spirits could endure anything for their constitutional rights and provide examples to others.
Roberts has since earned a doctorate in psychology and is currently a professor of psychology at Antioch University.
He is also still a firm believer that in any case, “people will fight for what they believe in.”