Dr. Terrence Roberts of the Little Rock Nine
In 1957, Terrence Roberts was 15 years old when he joined eight other students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. What followed, for him and the other members of the "Little Rock Nine", were days of fear, courage and uncertainty. At the 2007 Facing History and Ourselves New England Benefit, Roberts described life growing up in Little Rock Arkansas, and his decision to attend Central High School.
In Little Rock, every possible decision had a racial component: where you could live, where you could to go to school, whether you could work or not, whether you could get a bank loan . . . who you could marry. This made no sense to me, especially as I discovered there is no such thing as race.
There as young person in Little Rock, all these questions were buzzing through my mind. But I was an obedient student, however, of segregation. I followed the rules and I followed them diligently because death was in the offing if I didn't. I took my place at the back of the bus; I entered the back door, etc.
One day when I was 13 years old I had an epiphany. I had walked into Krystal hamburger joint . . . where I was going to order my burger, malt and fries to go, because black people could order food to go from this white establishment but could not sit down. I had previously done just that. On this particular day I ordered my food and sat down on a stool.
I can't explain to you even today how and why that happened. It was kind of an ordinary 13 year old thing to do while I waited. But then, everything in that restaurant stopped. All the heads swiveled in my direction. Without a word I got that nonverbal message "boy you better get some sense in your head."
I woke up at that point. I could no longer in good conscience follow the rules of segregation. I realized that would put me at great risk because I would be in situations that were foreign to me. Fortunately the opportunity came not much later for me to join this group of nine to desegregate Central High School. I was a ready volunteer.
It was a year of torment, including physical attacks, and Roberts often feared for his life. Years later, he discovered the psychological torment his parents endured, but protected him from knowing. Yet he got through the year, and then the school district closed all schools in an attempt to halt integration.
Roberts moved with his family to Los Angeles, where he graduated from Los Angeles High School. A graduate of California State University at Los Angeles (BA), and UCLA (MSW), Dr. Roberts obtained his Ph.D. in psychology from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. He is currently on faculty in the master's degree program in psychology at Antioch University, Los Angeles.
Today, as a member of our Board of Trustees, Roberts speaks to Facing History audiences across the country sharing the legacy of the Little Rock Nine.
"I want us to think seriously about living in a society where some people are privileged but others are not, and we take it as a matter of course that this is the way it is."