by Cierra Duncan
The nine African-American students enrolled in a Little Rock, Ark. high school in 1957 played an integral role in the Civil Rights Movement. Their desegregation of the school made national headlines and became a defining moment in Black history.
Dr. Terrence Roberts, a member of the Little Rock Nine, spoke from his memoir “Lessons from Little Rock” during a recent trip to Houston. His appearance was sponsored by the Ant-Defamation League, Southwest Region.
Roberts, now 72, lives in Pasadena, Calif., and is the CEO of a management consultant firm devoted to fair and equitable practices. He maintains a private psychology practice and presents workshops and lectures on an array of topics.
During his Houston appearance, he talked about the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which resulted in the Little Rock crisis. The court ruled that separate school systems based on race were unconstitutional and violated the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
“It was an important marker in time and space because the law was now on my side,” Roberts said. “Regardless of what you think about the law, regardless of whether you think it’s just or fair or needful, it is now written. The law now supports Terry Roberts. I had prepared my whole life up to that point for it.”
Once Brown v. Board of Education became law, Roberts said he no longer felt he had to remain subdued about his beliefs on equality. When NAACP representatives asked local students to help integrate Central High School, he was one of 150 students who initially volunteered. The number soon dwindled to nine.
“We quickly found out that we were not loved as a group, primarily by the governor,” Roberts recalled.
Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus defied the Supreme Court’s ruling and placed the National Guard at the school’s front entrance to stop the Black students from entering the building. They were not able to attend school until the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne were brought in as escorts due to the intervention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“Once we finally got into school, white kids in the school got up and walked out of the class each time we walked in,” Roberts said. “I thought that was odd because I was so in love with education, I could not conceive of a moment that I would leave an institution designed to help me in that enterprise.”
Roberts, who was 15 when he entered Central High, said he initially believed the racism would diminish due to fewer students in the classroom. He soon found out that those students who remained would be “more fierce” in their actions towards them.
“We were attacked daily,” he said. “Without the presence of military, I don’t think any of us would have made it through.”
The students were recruited by Daisy Bates, president of the NAACP Arkansas chapter and a Black newspaper publisher. Bates’ home became headquarters for the school integration battle and she remained a supporter of the students.
At the end of the school year, eight of the “Little Rock Nine” remained at Central High. Minnijean Brown was expelled due to fighting. This caused the remaining students to recommit to their vow of nonviolence.
“Once you understand there’s a bigger principle at stake, you can consider giving up violence,” Roberts said.
At the beginning of the following school year, Faubus closed all Arkansas schools in an attempt to stop desegregation. Roberts did not want his education to be hindered so he moved with relatives to California and completed his senior year in Los Angeles.
“My first grade teacher said you must become CEO of your own independent learning enterprise and I took her up on that,” he said. “I became CEO of the ‘Terry Roberts Learning Institute’ and I have not given that up.”
In 1967 Roberts received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from California State University. He earned a master’s in social welfare from UCLA in 1970 and a doctorate in psychology from Southern Illinois University in 1976.
Roberts serves on the Board of the Economics Resources Center in Southern California, the Western Justice Center Foundation, and the Little Rock Nine Foundation.
He is the recipient of the NAACP’s prestigious Spingarn Medal and the Congressional Gold Medal for his courageousness in Little Rock.
The above article was published in Volume 83, Number 14 (February 6, 2014) of the Defender newspaper in Houston, TX.