Original Little Rock Nine Member Shares Civil Rights Movement Memories at Saint Leo

March 03, 2014

When 6-year-old Terrence Roberts entered Gibbs Elementary School in Little Rock Arkansas in 1947 to start the 1st grade, he vividly recalls his teacher telling the class something profound: “Take an executive responsibility for learning.” That advice stuck with him for the rest of his life.

“As I progressed through the segregated school system at Dunbar Junior High and Horace Mann High, they were preparing us for the ordeal to come,” said Dr. Roberts, who made history as a member of the Little Rock Nine, before a standing room-only crowd during a recent evening presentation at Saint Leo University.

The Little Rock Nine were a group of African-American students who were the first black students to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in 1957. “Initially, we were 150 strong, but eventually those volunteering to attend was reduced to just nine,” stated Roberts, who was then a 15-year-old junior. The world watched as these fear-filled youth braved daily harassment and intimidation from those who opposed integration, including then Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who closed the city’s high schools the following year to prevent further desegregation.

Originally, the National Guard was called in to maintain the peace. Despite their presence, an angry crowd of several hundred people surrounded the school. The National Guard was removed and Little Rock mayor Woodrow Mann asked President Dwight Eisenhower to send federal troops to enforce integration. A day later, the U. S. Army 101st Airborne Division arrived and provided protection for the unwanted students for the next nine months.

Throughout the 1957-58 school year at Central High School, Dr. Roberts and his eight classmates were subjected to constant conflict, struggles and, in many cases, beatings. “I called it ‘Survival 101.’ Without the army being there, we would have all been killed,” he said. As a result of the subsequent closing of the local high schools during the 1958-59 school year, Dr. Roberts’ moved to California to live with his relatives, where he completed his senior year at Los Angeles High School in 1959. The school year following the crisis is often called the “Lost Year.”

Speaking with a calm and composed demeanor, Dr. Roberts continues to advocate an attitude of non-violence. “Central High School was a symbol of this country. Molding civility in society is another enterprise but we cannot give up trying. The lessons learned from Little Rock can lead us to greater understanding and awareness,” said Dr. Roberts. In 1999, he and the other Little Rock Nine students received a Congressional Medal of Honor from President Clinton.

The story of the Little Rock Nine and the desegregation of Central High School are nine separate stories -- nine individuals exercising their own constitutional rights. “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,” concluded Dr. Roberts.

In addition to being a widely-sought-after speaker about racial relations and civil rights, today Dr. Roberts heads a management consultant group dedicated to improving human relations in the workplace. He is also the official desegregation consultant for the Little Rock, Arkansas School District and provides similar services to school districts nationwide.

Dr. Roberts’ appearance was sponsored by the Division of Student Services.

To view Dr. Roberts’ presentation, please click here.