The UNC Pembroke community stood face to face with a living legend of the Civil Rights movement on January 19.
Dr. Terrence Roberts, a member of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in 1957, made two appearances on Wednesday. In the afternoon, he met with about 50 students, faculty and staff in what he called “a conversation.”
After remarks, Dr. Roberts opened the floor to questions, which turned the clock back to the 1950s. He said he and the other eight black students were beaten and abused during the entire year that they attended the all-white school.
“The first day we did not get in at all,” he said. “I wanted to quit every single second I was there.”
On the first day, the Arkansas National Guard, under orders from Gov. Orval Faubus, stopped the black students from entering the school, but on the second day, on orders from President Dwight Eisenhower, U.S. troops escorted them in.
It was one of the most important events of the Civil Rights movement. For Dr. Roberts, the experience was also very personal.
“I thought people as afraid as I was would certainly die of a heart attack or something,” Dr. Roberts said. “I learned that fear is not a barrier.”
Now 69, Dr. Roberts left Little Rock after one year at the school. He earned a Ph.D. in psychology and has written two books.
A student asked Dr. Roberts about his decision to join the Little Rock Nine.
“It was my choice,” he said. “All of us were volunteers.”
Dr. Roberts said his parents gave him their complete support either way. He added that non-violence was the only way to win with odds of 2,000 to nine.
“We were committed to non-violence,” he said. “When one of the nine was expelled for fighting, the white students said ‘one down, eight to go.’
“We were bloodied but victorious,” Dr. Roberts said.
Dr. Roberts’ said his commitment to the Civil Rights movement began at age 13. His conversion happened in a segregated Krystal hamburger restaurant.
“I placed my order, and for some reason, I jumped up on a counter stool to sit while waiting,” he said. “Black people were not allowed to sit down in the restaurant.
“Everything at the Krystal burger stopped, nobody said a word,” Dr. Roberts said. “It was a message so palpable that I could feel it.
“Something snapped,” he continued. “I felt a flood of emotions, fear, anger, hopelessness .. I cried.
“From that day, I could no longer obey the rules of segregation,” Dr. Roberts said. “That was a dangerous thing because Arkansas is right next to Mississippi, and I was the same age as Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered.”
Dr. Roberts eventually returned to Little Rock as a consultant with the school system. He regrets never sitting down with his tormentors.
“Initially, I had white friends, but they were quickly informed what the consequences were,” he said. “Later, I met a guy at an airport who said he was a classmate.
“He said ‘I watched you get beat up,’” Dr. Roberts said. “He had carried that psychological distress for 40 years.”
There was one white girl who refused to buckle under the pressure.
“Robin Woods,” he said. “She shared her algebra book with me.”
That was “significant,” he said, because of the sexual taboo.
“There are always exceptions,” Dr. Roberts explained.
Asked by a student if attitudes about race were different in California than in the South, he offered this explanation.
“When you think of the South and race, think south of Canada,” Dr. Roberts said. “We have a big problem that is woven into the fabric of 335 years of history.”
Dr. Roberts said the racial “terrain” remains difficult in the U.S., but he admitted to feeling hope in the 2008 election.
“It was the young people who carried the election,” he said. “The 18-25 age group was the only white age group to give a majority to President Obama.
“I have to have hope,” Dr. Roberts concluded. “I have two grandsons.”
Dr. Roberts visit was sponsored during ceremonies to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by the offices for Multicultural and Minority Affairs and Student Involvement and Leadership.