Civil Rights Icon Says Childhood Lessons Guided Integration Fight

When civil rights icon Terrence J. Roberts was a first grader at an all-black school in Little Rock, Ark., his teacher instilled in him a lesson that became a motto for his life.

“A teacher told me, along with all of my classmates, ‘you kids have to take on an executive responsibility for your own learning,’ ” Roberts, 71, of Pasadena, Calif., recalled Thursday at the 12th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Remembrance at Duarte Performing Arts Center in California.

” ‘You’ve got to take on CEO responsibility for your own independent learning enterprise.’ She repeated that over and over, and finally we got it,” he recalled.

It served Roberts well when he became one of the famed Little Rock Nine, the students who endured harassment, mob violence and death threats in 1957 when they became the first African-Americans to attend classes at Little Rock Central High School.

The closely followed confrontation was a pivotal event of the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Today, an author, a workplace consultant and retired psychologist, Roberts said he learned in first grade that he could not rely on teachers or institutions for his advancement. It was only as he got older that he realized that he could “poke holes in the ceiling” and find opportunities where others thought none existed.

Although the landmark ruling Brown versus Board of Education in 1954 decreed segregation in public schools unconstitutional, the law didn’t go into effect in many places for years.

In 1957, after then-Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus called the Arkansas National Guard to stop the black students from entering Central High, Roberts and the others attended the school accompanied by federal troops sent by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“We were fortunate we had the … 101st Airborne Division to look out for us,” Roberts said. “We had soldiers walking with us from class to class every day. By the way, without those soldiers, we would have been killed. There’s no question about it.”

But after that school year, the governor made the decision to close down every high school in Little Rock, driving Roberts to continue his studies in Los Angeles.

The governor’s “fairly idiotic” decision, Robert said, led to many students there halting their education altogether.

“There is no academic requirement to be voted into office. You do not have to be smart to be governor,” he told chuckling students.

Roberts later returned to Little Rock and worked as a “desegregation consultant.” Ostensibly, he said, it was to help officials comply with federal regulations. In reality, they didn’t want him to do a thing. But Roberts said that was fine by him – he just wanted to get his foot in the door and effect change…

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