When 15-year-old Terrence Roberts walked into Little Rock High School with 8 of his friends, he had no idea that the impact of their steps would be felt around the world for generations. Armed with the hopes of their families and community and some training in nonviolence from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lieutenants, the Little Rock Nine, as history would record them, integrated the school in 1957.
After a move by President Dwight Eisenhower to assign the 101st Airborne Division to escort the students through the angry mob every day for the entire school year, the Little Rock Nine accomplished the mission. 67 years later, Dr. Roberts spoke of his experience in those days and beyond at the 39th Madison City-County Observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 15, 2024.
Prior to Roberts’ speech, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi honored three Madisonians with the Dr. King Humanitarian Award. The awardees were Mathias Lemos Castillo, Board Chair of the Latino Professional Association of Greater Madison and head of MLC Consulting; youth leader and student activist Ashzianna Alexander; and Dr. Jack Daniels, president of Madison Area Technical College. There are usually 2 humanitarian awardees, but the choice was made to add a third award to honor Dr. Daniels given his retirement in June.
After an introduction by Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara, Chair of the Department of African American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Master of Ceremonies, Roberts spoke of those days in 1957.
Those who have heard about the Little Rock Nine know about their persistence amidst the angry mobs. One may think that the story of segregation ended when they successfully entered the school. But Roberts expands the narrative. These children were average high school students. They wanted to live their lives and teenagers of the day did, but that opportunity was limited. Roberts recalled the time that the group spent at the home of Daisy Bates. Bates was the leader of the Arkansas NAACP. The group gathered there after school because they were not allowed to participate in any extracurricular activities at school. Roberts recalled that their time in Bates’ home was spent after school discussing the death threats and daily attempts on their lives. Not the usual casual conversation for a group of teenagers. “As a 15-year-old I honestly thought I was going to end up on some coroner’s list on any given day,” Roberts recalled. He knew that any one of the white children could have killed them with impunity. He credits both their surviving and thriving to divine intervention.
In the classroom, Roberts experienced an education at Little Rock Central High School that was inferior to what he had known before. His early teachers were mathematicians and scientists who were well trained professionals that could not gain employment beyond teaching because they were Black. These teachers prepared their students fervently because they believed that they needed the knowledge to survive. Desegregation cost these teachers their jobs because white parents would not allow Black teachers to teach their children. At Little Rock Central High School, the 9 Black students performed far better academically than their white peers. Neither their peers nor their teachers appreciated this and would express their dissatisfaction in overt and covert ways.
Roberts says that he did not realize how important their persistence in going to school was until he began receiving mail from across the world. People encouraged him and let him know that they were rooting for the group. He was stunned that they were national and international news.
Little Rock’s high schools closed during the 1958-59 school year. Roberts then moved to California and graduated from Los Angeles High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from California State University, Los Angeles, a master’s degree from UCLA, and a Ph.D. in psychology from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has worked as a professor, mental health program director, and dean. He is currently the CEO of Terrence Roberts Consulting, a management consulting firm. He has also authored 2 books. In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Little Rock Nine.
In raising his own two daughters, Roberts encountered similar obstacles in their schools. Although his daughters did not face mobs and death threats, they did encounter racism from teachers and administrators. Thinking of his two grandsons, Roberts is concerned for the quality of their learning. While one may count the lack of overt racial violence as progress, Roberts and his family, along with Black families across the country, are still fighting the same battles for quality education that they fought almost 7 decades ago.
Roberts remembers looking across the mob in front of the school and observing that some of the people who were yelling obscenities at them were grandparents holding the hands of their grandchildren. A child himself, Roberts felt compassion for those young children. He wondered who would guide them and what they would learn given the influence of their grandparents. This observation sparked Roberts to dedicate himself to encouraging young people. “I encourage them to take on anyone who tries to interrupt their progress as humans,” he said. I saw this in action the next day when Roberts visited James Wright Middle School. Speaking to a group of about 15 students, Roberts encouraged them to stand up for their learning and to not allow anyone to hinder them, including themselves.
Key to Roberts’ message in his speech, his time with the Wright Middle School students, and our conversation is the importance of learning. This is where he finds hope. “All of us suffer from the disease of ignorance. The largest thing I own is a storehouse of ignorance. My goal is that by my end date, that storehouse will be diminished because I will continue to learn.”