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'Little Rock Nine' member talks in DL

Terrence Roberts connects with students from Detroit Lakes and Pelican Rapids by relating his own struggles from the past with those in schools today. PAULA QUAM/DL NEWSPAPERS

Hundreds of students sat staring forward, listening to a unique story of pure adversity Tuesday at the Holmes Theatre.

Seventh through 12th grade students from Detroit Lakes and Pelican Rapids listened to guest speaker Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine. He broke the mold by becoming one of the first African American students to walk into an all-white school after Brown versus the Board of Education.

Angry mobs protested and threatened to harm or even kill Roberts and the other African American students as they arrived for school.  Roberts, only 16 years old, told the students he had no idea just how intense the hatred would be.

“Somebody was yelling, ‘Let’s hang him, let’s hang him,’” Roberts recalled, “My fear level was off the scale.”

But as Roberts told his story, his points were always for the students to internalize for their own lives.

“So if you’re ever afraid,” he told them, “You just fold that fear up, put it in your back pocket and keep moving.”

Roberts did just that in 1957 as he trudged through every day of his junior year, facing the cruelest of bullying and threats on his life.

“Did the teachers ever teach you differently because you were black?” asked one student, as Roberts answered with a definite “yes.”

“I had a homeroom teacher who would see things and intervene,” he said of the harassment he received inside the classroom. “Some teachers would just turn away and never see anything.  But they were raised by families and communities that had these beliefs, so how could they be any different?”

  Roberts says every second of every day that year he wanted to quit, and when one student in the audience asked him why he didn’t, he said there were two reasons.

“We are people of the law, and when this ruling came down that made desegregation illegal, I knew I had the right to go to this school,” said Roberts, “And I knew people before me had died fighting for this cause of freedom, liberty and equality, and I could not in good conscience spit on their graves by denying this opportunity being given to me.”

Roberts, an accomplished psychologist with a doctorate and the CEO of his own consulting company, also travels around the county speaking to students about the challenges he faced then and the ones they face now.

During the student exchange with Roberts, Detroit Lakes ninth-grader Emily Gottschald shared her experiences of bullying, not due to race, but due to appearances.

“Do you think it’ll stop?” she asked him, bluntly.

The 71-year-old psychologist, who says he still experiences racial profiling today, didn’t hesitate for a second on a question that would have most others wondering what to say.

“I think other people will not stop giving you messages that are negative because of how people choose to be in the universe,” he told her. “But here’s the deal — none of that has anything to do with you.  You are not defined by what other people do or what they say. Other people have no power over you other than what you give them.”

Roberts, who believes students should become better global citizens, told the students he doesn’t believe “race” exists, only “racism” that includes the actions people take due to the things they’ve been taught.

Roberts, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton and has also been the invited guest to the White House by several presidents, speaks regularly about his part in history.

But for him, the fight for education that made him famous has never stopped, and he hopes to pass on the desire for life-long learning and the sense of responsibility for one’s own education.

He passed on a lesson his first-grade teacher taught him.

“You kids have to take on an executive roll in your education,” he said, emphatically, “You have to be the CEO and exercise executive privilege in your own educational enterprise.”

At the end of Robert’s presentation, the teenagers gave him a standing ovation, with students’ feedback often including the word “inspiring.”

“I liked him because I could tell he’s not superficial — he was very inspiring,” said Detroit Lakes sophomore Zach Fish, whose friend, Dominck Knopf added that he liked Robert’s message of “not stopping; you can do it.”

Fellow Detroit Lakes sophomore Megan Dady says it was hard for her to even grasp the concept of segregation.

“I can’t understand it or what it must have been like,” she said, adding that things are so different now. “But I think I understand it at least  a little better after listening to him, because you can’t learn something like this from a textbook.  You can read things and think, well, that might not have actually happened like that, but when you meet the person it’s kind of crazy.”

“Yeah, we’ve got it pretty easy compared to then,” said sophomore Billy Buchanan.

Roberts is now part of something called “The Little Rock Nine Foundation,” a non-profit that raises scholarships to students around the country who are financially in need but show promise academically.

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