Remembering Little Rock

By Matt Hawkins
November 21, 2013

Dr. Terrence Roberts, a member of the “Little Rock Nine,” reflected Wednesday night on his part in American race relation history and the journey since the momentous 1957 day.

As one of nine chosen from more than 100 students who applied to be part of the group to break Little Rock Central High School’s color barrier, Roberts knew the group faced a potentially dangerous challenge.

“We were all fearful we would be killed,” he said. “We were vulnerable and always under attack. We suffered through that period.”

Video of Complete Lecture

This historic role fulfilled a childhood premonition after Roberts had accidentally violated the color line at a Little Rock diner. He recalled sitting at a “whites only” counter, only to realize his mistake when patrons’ stares fixed on him. Though an unintentional faux pas, he sprinted from the diner in tears.

“As I ran out, I could feel something snap,” he said. “It was the end of Terry Roberts. I was going to end up like Emmett Till.”

With five decades of perspective on his part in history and the civil rights movement, Roberts still remembers the long-term “incredible energy” exerted by segregationists at that time. He attributed that to three centuries of legalized racial discrimination on U.S. soil that began with the first slaves in 1619 and legally ended with 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

“If you do something for 335 years, you're so practiced in the art that you just do it,” he said. “The law changed in '54, unfortunately, nothing changed with it because if you invest 335 years in it, you don't just give up because nine justices in black robes said so.”

He credited his first grade teacher and his mother for preparing him to face the challenges of racial tensions and his lifelong love of learning that propelled him to a career in psychology-related fields.

Roberts followed his teacher’s mantra, “You have to take executive responsibility for your learning,” and exhorts students to do likewise.

“The largest thing you own is a storehouse of ignorance, but don't fret about it,” he said. “You can whittle away at it.”

He credited the collective strength of the parents of the nine for helping the high school students persevere through the 1954 school year.

“They were remarkable people,” he said. “They knew the level of danger we were facing. We didn't.”

Noting his mother’s “model was so profound,” Roberts praised her ability to love across societal divisions.

“The power of love is greater than all others put together,” he said. “I'm fortunate I learned that early. If you got within hugging distance (of her), you were hugged.”

Out of that love came deep respect for the practical implications of the Golden Rule.

“Treat everybody in the universe as a peer,” Roberts said. “That's how to treat everybody. It's easier said than done, but that's our goal.”

In applying these life lessons to today’s race relations, Roberts criticized dialogue for not facing core issues.

“We dull them through a thin veneer of civility pretending things are OK, but beyond that there is no substance,” he said.

It’s this lack of deep dialogue that fueled debate surrounding Trayvon Martin’s 2012 death in Florida.

“This is not different,” Roberts said. “This is business as usual. The thin veneer of civility blinded us to that.”

Wednesday’s event, part of Bradley’s yearlong celebration of the civil rights movement, brought senior Chinyere Achusim close to one of her heroes. Achusim, who was chosen to introduce Roberts, was elated by the opportunity to hear him speak.

“It means a lot to have living history come in,” she said. “It felt amazing to sit here and listen to him. It’s wonderful to have him come and so many people come to learn something about African-American history.”