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Civil Rights Pioneer Terrence Roberts Keynotes King Week at W&L

Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine, described his experiences as one of nine black teenagers who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. He spoke on Sunday, Jan. 20, in Lee Chapel, during the keynote event of Washington and Lee University’s observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

In a wide-ranging, conversational presentation, Roberts, the CEO of T. Roberts & Associates, a management consulting firm in Pasadena, Calif., discussed his decision to volunteer to be among the first African-American students to attend Central High School following the Brown v. Board of Education decision. He also talked about the fear he experienced and the constant physical and mental intimidation he and the other black students faced each day.

At Central High School, Roberts said, he explored the understanding of non-violence that he and the other students had gained from a face-to-face meeting with King during that year.

“Every day for the length of that school year, we were beaten up,” he said. “The certainty of your being eaten by a Bengal tiger if you happen to walk into a cage where a Bengal tiger is housed is 100 percent. The same odds applied to us during that school year. Each time we walked onto that campus, there was a 100 percent certainty that we were going to get smacked.”

Roberts said that choosing to spend that year at Central High School was an idea “much bigger than us.” In fact, he added, he can hardly believe how the episode has grown to such proportions that now, life-size statues of him and the other eight students sit on the grounds of the state capitol in Little Rock. The school itself is a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service.

In response to a question, Roberts said that in his wildest dreams, he would wish that  civil rights would be accomplished not through legislation, “because we’re the kind of people who are committed to growth and development.”

That, he said, is a wild dream and legislation is needed. But “we have to do it in ways that involve more people, to get more voices. One of the things that I imagine for us, as a nation, is a giant, nationwide conversation about the issues that matter. We’ve not had that, ever.”

Roberts holds a B.A. in sociology, a master of social work and a Ph.D. in psychology. His long career has encompassed academic administration, student services, mental health services, university teaching and social work. He serves on the boards of the Western Justice Center Foundation and the Little Rock Nine Foundation, among other organizations.

Listen to excerpts from the talk below.