In 1955, on the heels of the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, the school board of Little Rock, Arkansas, announced a plan to integrate one of the city’s four high schools. More than 200 of the district’s black students applied to enroll at Central High School in the fall of 1957. The school board approved just 17 of the applicants. As the first day of school neared, resistance to integration became more vocal in Little Rock and as a result, only nine students were prepared to attend when it came time for school to open in September. On the 55th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock High School, Facing History spoke with Dr. Terrence Roberts, an original member of the Little Rock Nine, about the importance of remembering this moment in history. This month Dr. Roberts speaks with classrooms throughout New England, sharing his stories with students and teachers and encouraging them to share theirs as well.
Facing History and Ourselves: Why did you, as a 15-year-old rising junior in high school, decide to enroll in Central High in September, 1957?
Terrence Roberts: It was a no-brainer. With the passage of Brown v. Board in 1954, the legal landscape of this country had altered. I felt energized by that. I felt that now, a simple thing like going to my neighborhood school would be possible. Central High was six blocks from my house. I had to pass by it on my way to the all-black high school. Prior to 1954, I had no choice in that. When Brown v. Board passed I felt, “This is a choice that I can make.” The option was there and having an option is always important. Now, the option was there writ large. When I went to the all-black school, I had to travel miles and miles to get there. I rode a city bus to downtown, then I transferred to another bus that took me out to school, out by the Little Rock airport. So it was a no-brainer. I had the option to go to school near where I lived. It was something I’d wanted and now I had the right to do it.
FH: As you and the other eight students prepared to start school, your hometown community became increasingly filled with anger and hostility. Do you remember what that felt like at the time?
Roberts: I don’t think I was either nervous or excited. It takes a lot to throw me off balance. I understood that there would be some people in Little Rock who would be upset. I understood that there would be some people who would be very angry and would fight against this change. I thought, “I don’t know how this will be manifested, but I will find out.” What I found out was frightening. It wasn’t until later on that I truly realized the intensity that people would bring. Not only were they upset, they were murderous.
FH: Many people were angry. But many more did not take action. They did not protest, but they also chose not to do anything to stand up for you and your peers. What effect did this bystander behavior have on your experience?
Roberts: The really unfortunate thing in Little Rock was that there were folks who felt empathy for me and the eight other kids, but they were forced into inaction because they were threatened. Other kids at Central were told, “If you do anything that is friendly to these students, we will kill you, too.” It is hard for people to act in good conscience if they are being threatened so even the initial friendliness that some students showed when we started school disappeared.
FH: Were there any students whose actions—big or small—made school a more welcoming experience for you?
Roberts: My friend Robin Woods is the one that stands out. Robin and I had algebra together and one day, when I came to class without my books, she pulled her desk over so that we could share. She refused to give in to peer pressure and I’m sure there were others like her, too. For the rest of the year students heckled her and her family and that summer her family had to send her to Maine to go live with friends. She suffered for her kindness.
FH: At the time, did you consider the legacy your actions and choices might have?
Roberts: The first inkling that I had that my decision might have importance for other people was shortly before the Christmas holiday that year. I started receiving letters from people around the world. Many times these letters would get to me with the address “Terry Roberts, USA.” They addressed their letters that way and the letters found me. To me, that said, “Wow. This means that what we’re doing here is making a splash that goes all the way to other countries. This is something that is bigger than just nine kids.”
FH: You speak frequently in classrooms and schools around the country. Why is it important to you today to share your experiences of that school year?
Roberts: One of the main reasons why I keep sharing this history is to help school kids, and of course their parents and teachers, to develop a greater understanding of the efficacy of knowing history. History is not something that can be relegated to shelves to gather dust. History is alive. Every single thing that happens has an impact and understanding this allows students to become more aware of their own actions. Talking about these histories connects dots—it allows students to see that what they do and who they are and how they interact in the universe will impact what comes next.
FH: There are studies out today that show that our schools are becoming resegregated. Is this something you have seen in your own experiences?
Roberts: The thing is, I don’t think we’ve ever desegregated truly. After Brown v. Board, society created ways of maintaining the laws of segregation. We’re still in the midst of so much craziness around issues of race and economics. Those two issues are very tied to each other because of their history. And that is another reason why history is so important. It’s why we have to help people understand that they matter, that what they think matters, that what they do matters. Too many people have given up. Too many people see the way society is structured and say it’s not worth the effort. And I think that’s tragic because so many people have so much to offer. And sure, the truth is that it is not easy to make change. It is hard, very hard. But it is very important.
FH: What can schools and teachers do to help students understand that what they think and do matters?
Roberts: Ideally, the school would be a place where students would learn to think critically, absorb information, and process it in order to get to truth. What I usually say to teachers is that if you think of yourself as a “teacher,” you’re using the wrong label. “Teacher” implies that you know something. I say to teachers, you better call yourself a “learner.” If you can become enthusiastic about your own learning, kids will see this. If you can model learning — the excitement of learning, the importance of learning — students will follow suit. If you can raise up a cadre of teachers who are learners, who are spilling over with excitement for what they have learned, how is that not infectious?
FH: What do you think the legacy of the Little Rock Nine is?
Roberts: The fact that, in the face of all of those odds against us, the nine of us were able to go to that school and the determination we had, that sends one of the most important messages: Even though there are great forces of opposition in this world, they need not ever interfere with your own goal-oriented behavior.
Facing History’s Julia Rappaport wrote this article. For questions or tips on what Facing History is doing in your community, email her atJulia_Rappaport@facing.org.
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Dr. Terrence Roberts is a Facing History board member and featured Facing History speaker who visits with Facing History students, classrooms, and school communities across the country. Find out how you can bring a civil rights leader or survivor of the Holocaust or other instances of mass violence to your classroom.
Purchase or download the Facing History resource Choices in Little Rock today to learn more about the Little Rock Nine and the history behind the integration of Little Rock Central High School.