“Race has no true validity but we act as though it does,” Dr. Terrence Roberts said during a lecture in Benes Room A last Thursday at 7 p.m.
Roberts spoke first-hand about the rules of segregation and the fear that made people abide by them.
He was a member of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African American students who, in 1957, were the first to integrate Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.
Gene Sludge and Shelby Austin, co-presidents of the Student Union on Black Awareness, asked Roberts to speak during Black History Month.
Dr. Rock Jones, president of OWU, introduced the speaker to the crowd.
“It’s not often that we have the opportunity to be with a true American hero—a person whose life has helped shape the way society and our lives are lived today,” said Jones.
Roberts was born in 1941 in Little Rock, Ark. He said he anticipated joining a community of people who loved him, but instead, he got a very hard message.
“It’s like people said, ‘Boy, there is something very wrong with you. You are clothed in black and the color is white, don’t you know that?’
“I figured I was in the wrong place,” Roberts said. “It occurred to me there had to be sane people outside of Little Rock, where everyone is insane. Well, I was wrong. Everybody in the United States was totally bonkers.”
Roberts said he quickly learned the difference between life and death and lived by learning the rules of segregation and obeying them.
“From 1619-1954, a 335 year span, we the people thought it’d be best to live compartmentalized lives built on race segregation,” Roberts said, “During that period it was in fact legal to discriminate. Constitutional, if you will, to discriminate in these United States of America. If you are discriminating for 335 years you get good at it; it becomes second nature.”
The 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education case was not a popular decision, according to Roberts. One hundred congress members signed the southern manifesto saying, “We will do everything within our power to not permit implementation of this Brown v. Board decision.”
In 1954 Roberts was 13 years old and he said he was overjoyed by the monumental case. The law had changed. Unfortunately, he said, even though the law changed, nothing else changed with it. The social, cultural and ideological hatred remained embedded in the character of the country.
Roberts said he decided he did not have to play by the rules of segregation anymore.
“I was erroneous,” Roberts said. “When you’re 13, you do things. You just don’t think as you would as an ordinary human being. I violated one of the sacred laws of segregation. Chrystal Burger hamburger joint was a white owned restaurant, but they let black people go through the front door.
“I usually walked in, made my order, and it was always to go—the cardinal rule was blacks couldn’t sit down. Someone once joked that the way to end problems in the south would be to ‘get rid of all the seats.’ Anyway, I ordered a burger and fries and sat down. Immediately everything in the Chrystal Burger stopped as if someone has pushed pause on a VCR. All heads swiveled towards me. No words were spoken, but the nonverbal message was palpable. ‘Boy you better get some sense in your head.’”
Roberts said he suddenly awoke and realized what had happened. He cancelled his order and ran out.
“Something snapped inside me,” Roberts said. “I cannot continue to pretend to obey these rules. The year 1954 looms large in my head.”
Roberts said he remembers a boy being killed in Money, Miss., because he allegedly whistled or winked at a white female.
“He was savagely murdered.,” Roberts said. “His brutalized body displayed for the universe to see because his mom insisted on that. I was afraid I would wind up that way. There were so many stories like that.”
Two years later he joined the Little Rock Nine. Initially, there were more than nine. At a school assembly, Roberts said 150 students volunteered.
“The count was in fact off by one because I had both hands up,” Roberts said. “Then everyone went home– kids rethought their situation and parents vetoed the idea.”
Then there were 10 people left. Jane Hill was the student who left. According to Roberts, her dad got an employee call threatening to fire him if he sent Jane to school, so he pulled her out and lost his job anyway.
“He crossed the line just thinking of sending his daughter,” Roberts said. “People without kids in school lost jobs.”
Roberts said the most amazing thing to him was to watch the kids treat him and his friends with such disdain, as if to say, ‘we have the right to abuse you, don’t you know?’
“Even though we hadn’t discussed it together, the nine of us were committed,” Roberts said. “I’m pretty sure we all thought death was preferable to life under segregation. We were all eager to go to school; we loved school.”
The governor, however, was not eager to integrate. He called the National Guard to keep the children out and they did. Roberts and the other eight called the Little Rock police. He said he was almost killed that day.
“The situation was so dire that there was some talk of letting the mob hang one kid in order to get the other eight out,” Roberts said.
The third time the Little Rock Nine showed up to school, they were able to enter the building.
“Eisenhower sent in the army to help,” Roberts said. “Not because he cared about our welfare, though. The Arkansas governor had made noises about ceding from the union. But it’s okay to be a secondary beneficiary.”
With the army at his side in school, he said he and his friends still were almost killed. Children would run behind him, push him down the stairs and hit him with urine-filled balloons. He recalls being bruised and battered daily.
“The nine of us took a vow of nonviolence,” Roberts said. “It didn’t work like I thought. We were seen primarily as stationary targets. Running was my default option. I enjoyed running away. My mom once told me that lower animals like rats and cats and dogs fight because they can’t talk and negotiate so why would I ever want be like a rat?’ So I took my humanity and ran with it.”
The army was there until the end of year, according to Roberts. One boy graduated and the other eight were not allowed to attend because it was too dangerous. The next year, the six-time re-elected governor closed down all public high schools in Little Rock.
“I met the governor not too long ago,” Roberts said. We both appeared on Good Morning America. Backstage, I confronted him. ‘Your actions could have killed all nine of us.’ He said he had to do it otherwise he would not have been re-elected.”
Roberts said he went to Los Angeles, Calif., to live with his Grandma when the schools closed in 1958, and he persuaded his family to move there a few months after too.
“I technically am Californian at this point,” Roberts said. “I don’t pledge allegiance to geography, though. I am a citizen of the universe.”
At this point, Roberts began to accept questions, but there were rules.
“When asking questions, you are not allowed to use the word like,” Roberts said. “We are going to work on that tonight. This is your opportunity stop cold turkey. Stand and speak with your diaphragm.”
A student in the front row of the room asked, “Um why don’t you believe in race?”
Roberts’s response—“You have now been relieved of the need to say um.” He continued to say that the word race itself is new to the lexicon. It was first recorded in 1530.
“A group of pseudo-scientists developed it with a hierarchy from white to black and sold it to we the people and we bought it without thinking about it,” Roberts said. “Scientifically there has never been any such thing as a race. Every single human in the universe is unique.
“No one has been you and no one will be unless the people that got a hold of Dolly the sheep get a hold of you. Difference is the one thing that confuses us so we grab onto race. You too are a citizen of the universe. But we confuse it with all kinds of little lines.”
Another student asked, “Why is there still racism?”
Roberts said that even though slavery was abolished legally, it did not stop.
“If people wanted to change, we could,” Roberts said. “If you can do nothing else you can change you. Most people like to coast through life. You run the risk of being judged never to have lived. I take the best each person has to offer of whomever I am with and I let the trash go.”
Students also inquired about the importance of education to inner city black men.
Roberts said he was sent to school at the age of six. His first grade teacher said he had to become CEO of his own independent learning enterprise.
“When you take on executive responsibility nothing gets in the way of learning,” Roberts said. “You make decisions hourly to make it all happen. We need to find out more answers. It is imperative that we don’t buy the first thought that comes. We should challenge it and dig deeper.”
At the end of the Q & A, Roberts was presented with a book by an OWU class of ’82 alumnus, Byron Pitts. The book, called “Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life’s Challenges,” was signed by Pitts and by everyone in the audience for Roberts to take away as a memory from his experience at OWU.