Little Rock Nine Alumnus on Notion of ‘We the People’

By Terrence J. Roberts
Special to The Outlook

Terrence Roberts

In the wake of the massive outcry after the murder of George Floyd, I have been invited by a number of news outlets in the United States and Canada to comment on issues of racism in America. Most of the reporters want to know how I feel about things racial today in contrast to how I felt about these same issues when I was in Little Rock those many years ago.
My usual response has been to point out that it would probably be more meaningful to inquire about my thoughts instead of my feelings. Then, without waiting for a revised question, I proceed to speak openly, about my thoughts.
I think that very little sustained attention has been paid to the legally mandated actions designed to block the forward progress of Black people in this country. Historically we have had to contend with covenants preventing Black people from acquiring formal education in the nation’s public and private schools, laws preventing Black home ownership, restrictive covenants barring Black residents from neighborhoods identified as Whites-only spaces, laws limiting employment, health care, recreational and financial opportunities for Black people.
Many of these covenants have been changed, but the combination of residual effects from the period during which these pernicious laws were in place, and the continuation of these same practices even after the laws were changed, has led to striking disparities between Black and White Americans.
I think also that many White people have decided that the best they can do is to become “allies” of Black people in “their” struggle against racism. I want to make it crystal clear that this is NOT a good idea. Such thinking merely serves to give credence to the notion that there will forever be two Americas, one Black, one White. Are the Black men and women who fight to save this country from the imperialistic designs of other countries simply “allies” to their fellow White soldiers?
I think, in truth, that “We the people” has never meant all of us. At some point there must be a reckoning if we are to move forward. All of the well-meaning attempts to reform the police departments are doomed to failure if we never address the real reasons why Black people are at such risk at the hands of America’s police forces. To put it bluntly, police officers rarely have to be “trained” to deal with suspected offenders who are white. Continued willful ignorance of this dynamic will insure more of the same madness as the weeks go by. (Rayshard Brooks, case in point)

Photo courtesy Central High Museum Historical
Collections/UALR Archives
A young Terrence Roberts (right), 15, volunteered for what became etched in history as the “Little Rock Nine,” a small group of students who successfully integrated a white-only school at Little Rock Central High School, the first such integration to take place across the United States.

The video-recorded murder of George Floyd was not simply an aggravating anomaly but a serious violation of the code of humanity. I think, today, we have yet another opportunity to learn how to get closer to the aspirational ideal we often express in the singing of our national anthem, but we have to care enough to ask the most salient questions. My son-in-law, Paul Goodloe, said it best in his recent Facebook post. “During the initial night of protest turned riot in Atlanta, I was watching the coverage on TV. The White male anchor asked, ‘Where are the Black leaders that can talk to the people?’ I am sure many other White people were asking the same thing. My reaction was, and still is, we do not need to hear from ‘Black leaders’ because this is not a Black problem…” As Paul rightly points out, this is a problem created by White leaders; White people and their “leaders” bear the responsibility for planting the seeds of racism and tending to and harvesting its fruit for hundreds of years.
For me, one of the first questions to ask is this: “Why is it that racism has lost its connection to history?” We all know the apocryphal tale of George Washington and the cherry tree, but how many know that our first president also enslaved fellow human beings and used their labor to enrich the lives of himself and his family? Why are variations of this mindset evident today? In 1852, black physician James McCune Smith had this to say:
“The negro ‘with us’ is not an actual physical being of flesh and bones and blood, but a hideous monster of the mind, ugly beyond all physical portraying, so utterly and ineffably monstrous as to frighten reason from its throne, and justice from its balance, and mercy from its hallowed temple … No sir! It is a constructive negro — a John Roe and Richard Doe negro, that haunts with grim presence the precincts of this republic, shaking his gory locks over legislative halls and family prayers.”
Smith’s truth can only be blotted out by our commitment to the ideals we pretend to believe.

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