When Pasadena resident Terrence Roberts was growing up in the 1950s in Little Rock, Arkansas, he wasn’t allowed to sit in most restaurants or even enter a good number of them, only able to order food from a side window. The rest of his life, he knew, would be defined by racial segregation; where he could walk, live and work, whether he could go to school or get a bank loan or whom he could marry. Every move would be controlled.
That’s why, at the young age of 15, Roberts raised his hand at his all-black school, one of 150 initial proud souls who volunteered to try to integrate a white-only school at Little Rock Central High School, the first such integration to take place across the United States.
Out of those, Roberts was one of only nine who persisted, becoming etched in history as the “Little Rock Nine,” whose successful entry into the school will commemorate its 60th anniversary on Sept. 25. That day, the students were greeted with intense hatred and venom by a massive mob in front of Central’s storied staircase — some reports say there were up to 1,000 people — throwing rocks, bottles, spitting and kicking the students. Adults screamed to lynch the children. And that was before they got inside.
The nine children endured a full school year, 1957-58, wondering each day if they would survive.
“Honestly, there was no real guarantee that I’d be coming home any evening. My real goal was just to stay alive on any given day,” Roberts said. “I don’t know how it was that we weren’t all killed, really … with luck and providential intervention maybe. Fear reigned supreme. Everybody was afraid, even the soldiers were afraid.”
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court had declared segregated schools unconstitutional in its Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, Arkansas officials had refused to enforce it. When the Little Rock Nine students registered to attend Central in the fall of 1957, then-Gov. Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to stop them from entering. The students attempted on two different days, unsuccessfully, to enter the school but were stopped by the guards. Then, at the request of Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann, President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to protect the nine and help them clear a path to enter. Those guards, some just graduated from high school themselves, would stay with the students all year long, escorting them into and out of the school building. But they were not allowed to enter the classrooms.
“The soldiers were unwelcome and we were unwelcome, and the mob was insistent that we leave voluntarily or they would kill us and drag us out,” Roberts said. “We had to fight that battle day after day.”
Sitting down to discuss the experience and its 60-year anniversary, Roberts recalled entering classrooms as the only black student, often with teachers who were also hostile to the idea of integration. None of the black students had classes together, as bad luck would have it, due to their different grade levels and alphabetically mismatched names.
“Some of the teachers were very tolerant; in fact, a few of them were quite helpful. But the overwhelming majority of them did not like it at all. So they weren’t interested in our welfare,” Roberts said.
Roberts, who holds a doctorate in psychology, has spent a lifetime trying to understand the world around him and the people in it. Soft-spoken and philosophizing, he is an educator, author, consultant, motivational speaker and self-declared truth-teller. He’s written two books, “Lessons From Little Rock” and “Simple, Not Easy,” and is working on a third, a collection of essays.
“What you have to realize, is these were folks who had been steeped in this ideology from birth, from that area. I never thought about this until now, but it must have been very disturbing for [those teachers] to see us sitting there. We were there against their will,” he noted.
At first, the Little Rock Nine was made up of 10 students, but one of the girls had to quit after her father was told he’d be fired if his daughter continued to attend. Another girl was suspended for the school year after becoming involved in altercations.
“She was quite capable of defending herself,” Roberts noted. But after her suspension in February of 1958, the white pro-segregationists took it as a sign of victory, and anger became “even more ramped up,” Roberts said, with notes circulating the school, saying “one down, eight to go.”
The anger never subsided. Ultimately, the school district shut down all of the Little Rock public schools the following year of 1959 just to stop the integration from happening. Often called “the lost year,” in Little Rock, it is also when the private school movement began to take off, Roberts said.
At that point, Roberts’ parents sent him, at 16, to attend school in Los Angeles, where they had extended family, and joined him with his siblings later that year in a permanent move.
“The fact that no school was available was a compelling reason, but my parents rethought their rationale for staying in Little Rock,” said Roberts, who graduated from Olympic Los Angeles High School.
Since then, Roberts has dedicated his life to making the world a more tolerant, better place, publicly speaking on issues of race and prejudice across schools and the nation. He refers to the integration process all those years ago as “desegregation” because “truly there never has been integration,” noting the economic disparities of rich and poor and the overwhelming majority of people of color in the U.S. that fall into the latter half. His book “Simple, Not Easy” was dedicated to exploring the “mythological narrative” of progressiveness in modern-day America and its free and open society.
Roberts has never given up on Little Rock, returning often, and even worked as a consultant for the school district to help them spur advances on integration. That didn’t work out quite the way Roberts had hoped, though, with he and the district parting ways after four turbulent years. Officials still weren’t interested in making lasting, integral change, he noted, with black students still overwhelmingly absent from AP courses. Part of that also is due to the fact that residential segregation still remains largely unchanged in the city, and the quality of elementary schools reflects it.
Longtime friend and Pasadena resident Robert Davidson Jr. said he thinks Roberts’ experience as part of the Little Rock Nine shaped his passion early on.
“I think it’s given him a real sense of determination in life, given him that drive to know he can do anything he puts his mind to do,” said Davidson. “It’s also given him a sense of caring about the world around him … that’s a part of his calling. He goes back to his community to make a difference there.”
Part of what binds the two friends is their shared experience, Davidson noted. He also grew up in the segregated South, in Memphis, Tennessee, and also was one of four to desegregate an all-white school in the 1960s. He said Roberts is unafraid and unapologetic in his quest to share the truth.
“I agree with Terry … race is the third rail of our society. People don’t want to touch it because you’ll get shocked,” he said.
On a lighter note, Davidson said with a laugh, he often gets confused with Roberts when he’s out and about town in Pasadena since they are both tall, lanky and bald.
“But I’m always honored to be confused with Dr. Roberts; I tell people I’m not smart enough to be him,” he said.
As for fighting the good fight, Roberts said he’ll continue to challenge people to change the tone and national dialogue about race in America.
“I do see a solution … it’s that for every single citizen to commit himself or herself to be better on Day 2 than Day 1,” he said. “I think if more people were willing to speak the truth, that would help. If I’m not mistaken, I’m not the only one around who has the hope for something better.”