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One of 'Little Rock Nine' to speak in DL

Call in the troops: The U.S. Army helped desegregate Little Rock, Ark., schools. SUBMITTED PHOTO

It’s one thing to read about the history of the racial tensions that came with desegregating schools in the 1950’s.  It’s a whole different experience when you get one of the Little Rock Nine walking through the door to share their firsthand accounts of the dramatic events.

Detroit Lakes students will soon get that chance as Terrence Roberts will be spending the day at the Holmes Theater giving a seminar to Detroit Lakes students on September 24.

It will have been almost exactly 56 years ago to the day when Roberts was one of nine African American students to walk into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Although Brown vs. the Board of Education ruled two years earlier to desegregate the American school system, nobody made a move to do it — until the historic day of September 25, 1957.  The photos of that day are now famous as the Arkansas National Guard stood outside of the school to keep Roberts and his fellow black students out of the all-white school.

The guardsmen were there by order of then-Gov. Orval Faubus, who historians say buckled under political pressure to keep the schools segregated. 

Roberts, then a 15-year-old high school junior, was also met by angry mobs full of threats and hate.

The boy who only wanted to arm himself with education never expected this.

“We knew there would be some organized opposition, but we did not expect this intensity,” said Roberts, who was never let into the school that first day.  But ironically, it was a judge out of Fargo who made sure they would get in.

The legal battle

Judge Ronald Davies was a federal judge who normally worked out of North Dakota, but had been asked to temporarily fill a vacant seat in Arkansas because the case load there was spilling over.

Judge Davies, who grew up in Crookston, not only ordered that the desegregation of  schools there should go forward immediately, but took on the Arkansas governor who unlawfully deployed the National Guard to block the African American students out.

Davies ordered Gov. Faubus to get the troops out of there, which he did.

The next week, Roberts and the other members of the Little Rock Nine were escorted into the school by police, but angry parents inside the building outnumbered the police, and Roberts was again forced out.

President Eisenhower then stepped in to federalize members of the Arkansas National Guard so they would need to follow federal orders, not Gov. Faubus’s.  Eisenhower also mobilized the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to Arkansas to protect Roberts and the other eight students. 

It was a dramatic year indeed, and although the students were bullied and harassed on a daily basis, eight of the nine stuck it out to finish the year.

Roberts now spends part of his time traveling around the country doing speaking engagements.

He is making stops to speak to students in Detroit Lakes and Pelican Rapids, while also speaking to staff at the Fargo School District, UND and then onto Bismarck for the Governor’s History Conference.

Roberts, who has since earned a BA in sociology, an MS in social welfare and a PH.D in psychology, stepped out of his 30-year psychology practice to management a consulting firm named after him.

His job takes him to different organizations and businesses to help them work on ensuring fair and equitable practices, but his heart often takes him to area schools along the way.

Speaking in Detroit Lakes

Somehow, Detroit Lakes was chosen.

“I think we got lucky because we knew somebody who had an in with him,” laughed Pam Daly, an instructional coach at Detroit Lakes Middle School.

Daly says students seventh through 12th will go to the theater in different shifts to hear Roberts speak.

“It’s so exciting,” said Daly, “I know the students will be receptive because they’re awesome people, but I hope they’re as excited as I am.”

Daly says the students will be learning all about the events that surrounded the Little Rock Nine and the trials and hardships they faced being an unwanted minority in a freshly desegregated school in the Deep South.

“I hope they can take away that no matter the situation, we can always rise above and make the good choice and the right choice,” said Daly, “Sometimes we wallow in self-pity or our situation, but we never have to be stuck.”

The conviction that gave Roberts the courage to enter that Little Rock school 56 years ago is the same conviction that keeps him active in the school system, as he continues his efforts to better education and narrow the learning gap that sits on those racial lines today.

The illusion of progress

Roberts says while he is in Fargo he will be working with teachers to help them achieve a culture of excellence in the classroom.  “And I will try to teach them how to communicate across lines of differences, whether that’s gender, race, religion or culture,” said Roberts who believes although students today live in a totally different world than he did as a child, there hasn’t been much progress.

Roberts says Americans only believe there has been progress in racial inequality because they’re being told that.

“Change for me would be everyone in this country being perceived as persons of worth… persons who are equal to other persons and we don’t have that,” said Roberts, “What we have now is a thin veneer of civility, but underneath that all kinds of stuff bubbles, and while we can change that, we still haven’t.

Roberts says he believes America still has the same structural inequality built into it that it’s always had, but the national narrative on race doesn’t reflect that.

“When you look at the social barometers — the gap in education, in income, those are there not because people of color are inept, it’s because they’ve been locked out of the process,” said Roberts, who says while he does talk to students about the 1957 events that surround his legacy, he also wants them to take away the desire to think for themselves.

“Not for them to just be sponges that soak up whatever we say, but to develop the tools to become critical thinkers,” said Roberts, “and I tell them that it’s ultimately their own responsibility to learn … to think, to ask the harder questions.”

Roberts, who was awarded the Congressional Gold Metal by President Bill Clinton in 1999, wants to inspire every child to become self-aware, to self-develop the potential that they bring to the world and to learn how to become global citizens.

“And if they can sense that you genuinely care about them and want to steer them towards something productive, they will listen,” said Roberts.

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