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‘Little Rock 9’ Civil Rights Icon Attended Inauguration

LA Watts Times, Feature, Andre Briscoe Posted: Jan 27, 2009

When Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on January 20, Americans might have concluded that the nation had finally overcome its racist past.
RobertsDr. Terrence Roberts

But for retired psychology professor Dr. Terrence Roberts, 67, one of nine black teenagers who integrated Arkansas’ Little Rock Central High School in 1957, the ceremony was another cleared hurdle in the continuing battle for equal rights.

Obama’s election validates what the “Little Rock Nine” tried to accomplish, said Roberts, a former co-chair of the Master’s in Psychology program at Antioch University in Los Angeles who has been invited to attend the inaugural ceremony for the first black president in U.S. history.

“It adds substance to what we tried to do,” Roberts said. “When you look at this country’s history, and you look at the opposition to integration, and then you look at what has happened with Obama’s election, it is quite apparent that the old system is crumbling.

“In retrospect, what we did fits in that pattern. We were able to chip away a bit at the old system — weaken it if you will — to the point now where it’s crumbling faster than ever.”

If anyone understands the harm segregation causes, it is Roberts. In the fall of 1957, at age 15, he and the eight other black teenagers who would come to be known as the “Little Rock Nine” braved insults, taunts and threats of violence from white students and adults who opposed the integration of Central High.

Three years before the “Little Rock Nine” summoned the courage to walk through the doors of Central High, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The ruling forced all schools to desegregate, and the Little Rock School District was one of the first in the South to comply.

Roberts, along with Carlotta Walls; Melba Patillo; Gloria Ray; Jefferson Thomas; Ernest Green; Thelma Mothershed; Elizabeth Eckford; and Minnijean Brown volunteered. All were chosen because they had done well in school up to that point, Roberts said.

But on the first day of classes at Central High, the nine were turned away by the National Guard, who, on the order of then-Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, blocked the school’s entrance. Faubus had come under pressure from anti-integration whites in Little Rock to stop the black students from enrolling.
Weeks later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered federal troops to the city to protect the group. The following year, Faubus closed all the public high schools in the city to stop further integration efforts.

By then, Roberts and his family had moved to Los Angeles, where he graduated from Los Angeles High School. He went on to earn degrees in sociology, social welfare and a Ph.D. in psychology. Schools in Little Rock reopened in 1959.
Over the years, Roberts has lectured high school and college students at seminars, and has been interviewed extensively about what it was like during the turbulent year he spent in high school. He uses his experiences as a platform to teach the importance of education and how to best improve relationships among people of color.

In the days leading up to Inauguration Day, the “Little Rock Nine” will attend luncheons, speak at events, and participate in as many inaugural balls as possible, Roberts said. He also plans to speak to students and faculty at the Sidwell Friends School, where Obama’s two young daughters, Malia and Sasha, have recently enrolled.

The Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, has known Roberts for the last 13 years. He called Roberts a “true community leader,” someone who speaks with great wisdom and firmness, and who understands the causes of racism, as well as the solutions.

“He carries himself with that air of authority that is characteristic of people who were pioneers in the Civil Rights Movement,” Bacon said. “He knows what it means to have been spit on, and yet continues to go forward in the face of great persecution and resistance.”

Over the years, Roberts has used his recollections of time spent at Central High to help people understand the nature of racism in American society, and keep them aware that even today, though segregation has been legally eradicated, it is still practiced.

“You can see the tremendous imbalance, and then when you realize that if you practice rigid segregation for that number of years — well over 300 years — it’s a very difficult habit to break,” Roberts said. “So what we’re dealing with even now, in this year 2009, is a lot of the vestiges of that old way of thinking.”

Last December, at the request of his neighbor DeWalt Brown, Roberts spoke to students at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy in La Canada about growing up in Arkansas, and the harassment he and the other eight teenagers endured.

“He epitomizes forgiveness,” said Brown, whose daughter Blair is a freshman at the school. “He talked about his experiences, yet he was very humble. The kids got a real picture of what he was like and what those times were like.”

Obama’s landslide victory over Republican challenger John McCain perhaps shows that racism has diminished somewhat, but instances arose during the primary and general election that indicate dialogue about race needs to continue. One of the notable instances was controversy surrounding statements made by Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

“It underscores the fact that race continues to be present but unfocused,” Roberts said. “The focus is rarely on race, and it should be central.”

Once he takes office, the new president will have to deal with an entrenched political machine, one that might resist the message of change Obama has repeatedly called for, Roberts said.

“He is going to have to use all of his skill to get around this,” he said. “It’s a rare person who comes along … who is not pushed ahead by forces. I don’t see Barack being pushed ahead by those forces. What’s pushing him is an honest desire to serve the needs of the public.”

The new president is also a new voice, as well as someone keenly aware of national and international affairs, Roberts said. Obama wants to create positive change, just as the “Little Rock Nine” influenced positive change when they entered Central High more than half a century ago, he added.

“Race is artificial. It has no scientific basis whatsoever, and yet, we as human beings tend to cling to it,” Roberts said. “Obama does not.”

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