By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
The Chicago office of international educational non-profit Facing History and Ourselves is celebrating its 25th anniversary on April 12, and Terrence J. Roberts, Ph.D., who was one of the Little Rock Nine, will serve as the keynote speaker at the event.
The Crusader spoke with Dr. Roberts to get his views on the state of affairs in the United States nearly 60 years after he and eight other students were initially met with violence and resistance in Little Rock, Arkansas, simply for trying to get an education. An iconic photo that is online everywhere shows that day in 1957, when Dr. Roberts, who was 15 years old at the time, and other Black students were denied entry into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Central High School, its principal, local politicians and residents, as well as the governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus were against the recently passed federal law that called for the desegregation of public schools. Dr. Roberts is, indeed, a part of history for his role in this monumental event, which is one of many that Facing History and Ourselves shares with students across the globe. The organization is involved in international educational and professional development, as they seek to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry.
Dr. Roberts’ position on the Los Angeles Advisory Board of Facing History affords him the opportunity to teach students all across the country. He delights in sharing his experiences, but he is also committed to helping grade school students, as well, figure out what their contribution to history will be.
“I have been going into the schools for a few years, now, but first I gauge to see if the students have an interest in learning about the history,” Dr. Roberts said. “If they do, we will have an exciting conversation. If they have done the research and have come up with good questions, then I know that their interest has already been piqued.”
Dr. Roberts noted that some students may come from an environment where learning isn’t valued and education is not a high priority. “In these cases, they haven’t built their minds with the information, and I help them to build themselves into the historical record. We talk a lot about history and the students as being ones who are making history themselves.”
Dr. Roberts thinks that when students can see someone in the flesh who is a part of history, as opposed to reading about different history makers in academic books, it opens up for a more enlightened discussion.
The conversations to which Dr. Roberts refer occur across the country and in Chicago, as well, where more than 3,500 Facing History teachers in the area annually reach an estimated 300,000 middle and high school students.
His part of the Little Rock Nine history involves a group of nine African-American students who were enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declared that segregated schools were unconstitutional. The NAACP attempted to register Black students in previously all-white schools in cities throughout the South. In Little Rock, a plan was submitted for gradual integration, with full implementation beginning in September of 1957.
However, protests were planned to block the students from entering the school, and Gov. Faubus ordered the gun-toting Arkansas National Guard to support the protestors. As the Little Rock Nine walked to school in early September, they were met by angry, racist residents and students. Finally, after President Dwight Eisenhower intervened and met with the governor, in late September, the students were accompanied into the school by the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne, amid a mob of about one thousand.
However, this wasn’t the end of the protests, the Black students were harassed and badgered so much that Gov. Faubus cancelled the entire 1958-1959 school year for its three high schools rather than see them integrated. Students attended school in other districts, and in 1959, Little Rock public schools reopened as an integrated school system, with Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine, becoming the first Black student to actually graduate from Central High.
After graduating from high school in Los Angeles in 1959, Dr. Roberts continued his education, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in sociology from California State University at Los Angeles; a master’s degree in social welfare from UCLA; and a doctorate in psychology from Southern Illinois University.
For more than 30 years, he has held academic and administrative positions at two universities and has maintained a practice in clinical psychology. He has been director of a hospital-based acute care mental health unit and the CEO of a management consultant firm, Terrence J. Roberts and Associates.
His work in the psychology field makes him an expert on the recent spate of overt racist events, even with a Black as president for the past eight years. He feels that the sentiment about Pres. Obama’s tenure is that he is seen as “an affront to many people.” As it concerns the criminal justice system and incidents where the “so-called” perpetrator may have displayed mental health issues, Dr. Roberts was more direct. “I don’t think the current system has a clue about what to do, and it needs to be reformed as much as possible and replaced with a more humane one. It makes no sense to throw people in jail, if they are mentally ill, because it guarantees a revolving door with no room for rehabilitation.”
Dr. Roberts says that his historical relevance as a teen in 1957 is one of many events—from slavery in the United States to Sandra Bland—that comprise the civil rights movement. “These are historical landmarks in the fight for civil rights, and Little Rock is a part of that. The Black Lives Matter movement is the most recent reiteration. We try to capture things with beginning and end dates, and that is never appropriate. These things are ongoing, but they take on different characteristics.”
Dr. Roberts and his wife have two adult children, and the couple is active in their Pasadena, California, community with supporting a local elementary school. Among other things, he and the other eight members of the Little Rock Nine comprise the Little Rock Nine® Foundation, which promotes equal access to education and provides scholarships for students. For information about the Foundation, visitwww.littlerock9.com.
For more information about Facing History Chicago’s 25th Anniversary Celebration, which honors the Chicago office co-founder Judy Wise and director Bonnie Oberman for their combined 47 years of service, visitwww.facinghistory.org.