Terrence Roberts, one of the first students to integrate the Little Rock public school system in 1957, urged a crowd of about 60 students yesterday to fight the segregation and animosity that he said still exists in the educational system today.
“Little Rock did not happen in a vacuum,” he said. “It was not an accident. It was by design.”
Roberts opened the 2008 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium by telling the audience about attending a segregated school system and integrating Little Rock Central High School during one of the most hostile periods in American history.
Shortly before Roberts enrolled at Little Rock High School in 1957, King visited Roberts – then just 15 years old – and the other students known as the Little Rock Nine.
King told the students to use non-violent resistance and warned them about the racism they would face.
Roberts described the reception on his first day at the newly integrated high school.
“I got there and found this howling mob who could twist their faces in a way I could not replicate before you,” Roberts said.
Roberts spoke at length about how important obtaining a good education was to him.
“There was a constant voice in my ear: ‘Boy, get your education,’ ” Roberts said. “I took executive responsibility for learning, and I cannot tell you what a difference that has made.”
When he entered the classroom on the first day, Roberts’s white classmates protested his presence by leaving the room. He said he couldn’t believe they were willing to sacrifice their own education to hinder his.
Roberts’s passion for learning contributed to his commitment to desegregation, he said. When Roberts was young, he read extensively in an effort to understand why he was not given the same opportunities as white children. Eventually, Roberts said, he concluded that there was no good reason – only hate and fear.
“It was a dangerous thing to teach Terry Roberts how to read,” he said.
Theda Gibbs, the program coordinator for the symposium, said Roberts was selected as the opening lecturer to show what we can learn from that era of the civil rights movement. She said Roberts could teach University students “how to do better by the students who are going through the educational system now.”
Roberts said that today’s society continues to fight battles started by past generations. He said “residual systemic elements” from before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education verdict still exist today.
“Everything that ever happens historically is merely an antecedent to everything that happens since then,” he said. “We should decide collectively whether we want an integrated society. So far, we’ve decided to be segregated.”
Near the end of his talk, Roberts opened the floor to questions. When asked for his opinion on affirmative action, Roberts said he supported it, but had to qualify his support with a definition of the phrase.
“America is an affirmative action country,” he said. “Since its inception, we have believed in affirmative action. America developed an affirmative action program for white males unsurpassed in the history of the world. We need to expand it to include everyone else.”
Roberts, who now runs a consulting firm specializing in multicultural awareness, normally makes between 30 to 40 speaking appearances per year. This year, Roberts said, he plans to make about 100 presentations for the 50th anniversary of the integration.
Roberts still serves as a desegregation consultant for the Little Rock School District but has not played an active role since 2002, when a court ruled Little Rock had fully integrated.