Dr. Terrence Roberts spoke to students in the Huntington Beach High School gymnasium today about his experience during the Little Rock Desegregation Crisis of 1957. History students from six Huntington Beach, California middle schools and high schools filled the bleachers to hear Dr. Roberts’ first hand account of one of the most dramatic episodes of the ongoing civil rights movement.
The Little Rock Desegregation crisis came on the heels of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education which ended legal segregation in public schools. According to Stanford’s website,
“Three years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal, nine African American students—Minnijean Brown, Terrance Roberts, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls—attempted to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The students, known as the Little Rock Nine, were recruited by Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, Martin Luther King wrote President Dwight D. Eisenhower requesting a swift resolution allowing the students to attend school.”
The visit from Dr. Roberts was sponsored by the Human Relations Task Force of the Huntington Beach Library through the HB Reads program. Huntington Beach mayor Matt Harper and city councilwoman Jill Harding were in attendance.
Terrence Roberts began his presentation with a question – Why did Little Rock happen? It’s a complicated question with a complicated answer. He explained that he had the misfortune of being born in Little Rock with black skin. The message he was receiving from the culture he was born into was that something was wrong with him because he was black. Roberts spoke about his ability to adapt to the rules of segregation.
Roberts was very inquisitive at a young age, however he was told not to stir up trouble by challenging social norms. Roberts said, “I always felt trouble was already there when I arrived. How could I possibly be the cause?” Education had a big impact on Terrence Roberts. He recalled a lesson taught to him when he was six years old. He was told to be the CEO of his own education and take executive responsibility for his own success. He set his mind up at that moment to find a way to “rise above the madness.”
The Little Rock Nine Foundation website sets the stage for Terrence Roberts’ first day of school at Central High School. “September 25, 1957, became a historic day in the Nation when nine courageous children risked their lives to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Confronted by a hostile crowd and escorted by the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne, they shouldered the burden of integrating a then segregated public school system.”
On the first day of school Terrence Roberts and eight other African American students attempted to enter Central High School. The governor had ordered the Arkansas National Guard to surround the school and refuse admittance to anyone of color. After three weeks of this President Eisenhower enlisted the 101st Airborne to escort the students to and from classes and the bus.
Roberts explained that he and his fellow African American students had taken a vow of non-violence. This was extremely challenging since the Little Rock Nine was harassed and bullied every day. The day after one female African American student was expelled for defending herself white students circulated little cards that read, “One down, eight to go.”
Terrence Roberts knew he was not welcome but he had the courage to stick it out for one school year. After one year at Central, Dr. Roberts moved to California and attended Los Angeles. Three of the Little Rock Nine graduated from Central High School.
The surviving eight of the nine comprise the board of trustees of the Little Rock Nine Foundation which will be taken charge of by the Clinton Foundation as the board members pass into retirement.
Most of the first hand accounts shared by Roberts are included in his compelling memoir detailing the Little Rock Desegregation Crisis of 1957. In the book “Little Rock Nine” member Terrence Roberts opens the door to the life he and his family lived in the segregated South in the 1950s. According to Roberts’ account the segregated South was a place where some birth announcements in the daily paper addressed new parents as Mr. and Mrs., while others did not; a place where some patrons were welcomed to sit at restaurant tables, while others had to take their food to go; a place where some could walk to school or work without fear, while others could not; a place where some teens were prepped for lives of prosperity and respect, while others were not. Roberts gives an eyewitness account of what readers will recognize as history, yet to the young man living through these tumultuous events it was just life in a country on the cusp of momentous change.
Dr. Terrence Roberts’ final message to the students was this, “Every single human being on the planet changes the universe. You change history just by showing up. What kind of footprint will you leave?”
[Images Via Bing]