Los Al High students, community members get a hopeful lessons in living history

Civil rights icon Dr. Terrance Roberts somehow held an audience including students from elementary to high school level at the edge of their seats for nearly 90 minutes. Photo by David N. Young

Acquire knowledge to combat hate says Dr. Terrance Roberts

In an age when conventional wisdom indicates the attention span of most young people is less than 20 seconds, civil rights icon Dr. Terrance Roberts somehow held an audience, including students from elementary to high school level, at the edge of their seats for nearly 90 minutes.

One of nine American teenagers who literally walked into history by integrating the Little Rock school system in 1957, Roberts commanded the stage as he lectured to an overflow crowd at Los Alamitos High School at the invitation of Dr. Gregg Stone, the school’s principal.

He held the student’s interest, in part, by harking back to an age when he was the same age as many in his audience.

Also, Roberts did not present a caricature of injustice, instead presenting a stark reality of racism as he perceives it to be, while always connecting a life lesson thereto.

Now 77, Roberts owns a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Southern Illinois and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton in 1999.

As a 15-year-old, however, Roberts was only one of nine black students in the city of Little Rock Arkansas who mustered the courage to face the rage of indignation and entered the white only Central High School in 1957.

Just three years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education outlawed the doctrine of “separate but equal” across the United States, segregationists in the South wanted no part of desegregation of their schools.

In Part One of this series, we recounted Roberts’ retelling of the drama and danger faced by the “Little Rock 9” during this surgical incision into the nation’s gaping wounds of racism, but there was much more to the story.

During this 90-minute lecture, Roberts’ tactfully interlaced parables of wisdom as he covered key developments of the nation’s racist infrastructure from his own, unique point of view.

For example, he told the story about an incident when, as a teen, he entered a Krystal Burger joint in Little Rock. Even though the Supreme Court had ruled “Separate but equal” no longer legal, Roberts said it was obvious to him that “the law changed but not much else.”

Students leaned forward with interest as he recounted his feelings of simply trying to buy a hamburger. Roberts said the messages were “clear” to him as soon as he entered the burger joint. “There were plenty of empty chairs,” he said, yet the patrons, all white, “sent me a very strong non-verbal message. Not a word was spoken,” he added, “but I got it.”

He left.

Citing the gift of “wisdom beyond her years” from his mother, Margaret, Roberts said he has never had a fight in his life. In fact, Roberts said he grew up in a household as the eldest of seven brothers and sisters without a hint of sibling rivalry.

Moreover, one of his brothers, a retired Long Beach teacher, stood in the side doorway and was noticeably beaming with pride as his brother spoke to the overflow crowd. A Los Al teacher even commented during the question and answer period of how marvelous it was to see such unreserved pride coming from a sibling.

Roberts said because of his parents, their clan learned early that fighting or arguing with others is a foolish bargain. “Life is hard,” said Roberts, and also short. My mother used to tell us that each one of us only has a finite amount of life force and warned her kids not to needlessly waste it.

“No human is on this planet for very long,” he told the students. “If you harbor anger and resentment (against others) you pay double,” said Roberts, “because the person you hate won’t contribute a thing.”

Roberts pleaded with students to fully understand that it was a “choice” whether to respond to bullying, racism or other challenges they will encounter in life. “You will have an opportunity to choose how you respond” to those situations, he said. “Never be angry at other people for being who THEY are.”

“What other people say about you is THEIR business, not yours,” said Roberts. He told the students that when or if they respond to foolish things like “yo mamma jokes,” it amounts to “signing a social contract saying stupid belongs to me.”

Don’t do it, he warned. “Get on with it, forgive them, move on, and become a functioning citizen of society.”

Also, he strongly urged students to be brave and not take conventional wisdom as truth. “Take the time and make the effort to get to the primary source of knowledge,” he pleaded with them. “Do the hard work to ferret out the truth,” he said. “Do not take anyone else’s word because what we’re doing now is not healthy.”

He used an example of how sheep, being led in a flock, will jump unnecessarily to navigate an obstacle if they see the leader doing it.

Being blunt, Roberts said “the biggest thing we own is a storehouse of ignorance” about facts. “How much one knows,” he said, “provides access to options” which he said is the basis of intelligence.

Even when someone asked him about the n-word, Roberts blurted it out, saying that generally, people who use that word and words like it have “access to fewer (vocabulary) options.” He told the students if they want to “live up to your human potential” to increase their vocabularies.

“Master the language and omit words that do not contribute to the understanding of things that matter,” he said.

More specifically, with his tongue squarely in cheek, he urged the students to refrain from the use of the word “like,” a word that he says carries so much “freight.” He wondered why “young people have no respect for language.” Enhancing knowledge and vocabulary will greatly benefit students for the rest of their lives, he told them. Roberts said as a teenager, he often carried a dictionary under his arm. “I was a nerd,” said Roberts, “but I wanted to be the Chief nerd.”

Having the power of knowledge will provide students opportunities, throughout their lives, to resist making guttural responses from the limbic system (emotions) and instead, having them made from the cerebral (thinking, rational) area.

“We live in a collective,” said Roberts, noting that “we come into the world connected (via an umbilical cord) to another human. Forgive the haters,” he said, and “think for yourselves.”

“We have to learn how to live with one another and make sense of what we call life. “We’re all playing parts in this human drama,” said Roberts, advising students that their upcoming lives will be much more fulfilled if they equip themselves with, what he called, “tools for life.”

“For me, it was very inspirational,” said Los Al student Tina Arai. “I think he was really persuasive, and it really hit home for me.”

Alex Arai, her brother, also a student, called the lecture “very insightful.” Roberts impressed on him what could happen “if we don’t learn to change.”

For Jack Dagerman, another Los Al student, said he was shocked at the pictures of people “yelling at the Little Rock 9 trying to enter the school for the first time. He said it was sad that many of the issues then, “were still around. It’s surprising,” he said, “but I’m glad he came.”