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Man who lived civil rights struggle as one of the 'Little Rock Nine' says race goals still elusive

Like at the start of a typical race relations class, the first thing Terrence Roberts asked UND education students to do Monday is write down a definition of the word race.

Dr. Terrence Roberts
Dr. Terrence Roberts, one of the "Little Rock Nine," talks about his experiences in Arkansas that led the desegregation movement in the South. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Like at the start of a typical race relations class, the first thing Terrence Roberts asked UND education students to do Monday is write down a definition of the word race.

"Who found it difficult to write it? Nobody actually knows what the word means," he said. "But it's essential you do know what it is, because you're going to be using it, too."

But Roberts is not a college professor. He was one of the Little Rock Nine, the first children who integrated an Arkansas public high school in 1957 and set off a firestorm of protests that represented one of biggest milestones of the civil rights struggle in the United States.

Roberts spoke to education students hours ahead of another talk he was scheduled to give after the UND premiere of "The Road to Little Rock," a documentary showing that evening about federal Judge Ronald Davies and his famous ruling in favor of federal school desegregation. Davies, a Crookston native and UND alumnus, was a federal district judge who had been reassigned from Fargo to Little Rock.

Resistance

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Roberts briefly mentioned the kind of deeply embedded resistance that emerged in Little Rock as he and the other students walked to Central High School.

It was found in the National Guard members who blocked their entry to the school and in the snarl of hundreds of protesters who showed up that day to yell epithets and, as he said, "kill kids."

"In Little Rock, there seemed to be an issue in all things racial," he said.

He later said he didn't know the National Guard was in place to prevent the group from entering the school. But despite the chilling fear he felt during that time, he's still grateful to have learned from the experience.

"That let me know exactly what I was up against going forward in life and in this country -- that it wouldn't be an easy thing to expect that rights would be granted, simply because I happened to be a U.S. citizen," he said.

Much of his talk to students had the feel of a lecture-style class, revolving around the definition of race, racism and his perspective on why problems persist today. By 1957, more than 300 years after Africans were first sold into slavery, people were experts "in the art of discrimination," he said.

Though the passage of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark ruling in 1954 that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, was a watershed event, but nothing else immediately changed with it. The language of the law "with all deliberate speed" was vague and didn't create any pressure for a timely resolution, he said.

Still divided

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Now in Little Rock, schools are populated by more diverse groups and 17 languages are spoken at the high school, Roberts said. But the divide between black and white still exists, and when he was hired by the school for four years as a desegregation consultant, they didn't want his service, they just wanted good press, he said.

"I almost predicted the exact date I would be fired," he said.

Racial problems still haunt not only Little Rock but everywhere in the nation. Even though laws have been passed and customs have been changed to prevent people from being totally at risk, people are still at risk and it's too early to even talk about progress, he said.

Roberts, who is the author of several books and leads a consulting firm, advised students to develop a strong understanding of who they are and their surroundings to better combat racism, and not do it out of guilt or obligation. He also told them not accept the racial beliefs that have been passed down through the ages.

"You've got to challenge all of this stuff," he said. "Many simply take what's been handed to us and continue on with life."

Call Johnson at (701) 787-6736; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1736; or send e-mail to jjohnson@gfherald.com .

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