Photo by Sarah Chi
Sixty years ago, Dr. Terrence Roberts was a high school student living in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Following the 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregation unconstitutional in schools, Roberts and eight other classmates volunteered to attend the formerly all-white Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957.
Today, the nine African American students are known in history as the Little Rock Nine.
But Roberts is more than just a historical figure.
“[Roberts] also reminds us of how the struggle for tolerance continues today and that we each must strive to understand each other’s stories and personal perspectives,” said Superintendent Rick Schmitt.
Schmitt arranged an opportunity for about 150 students, and all school district staff to hear Dr. Terrence Robert speak about understanding and equality on March 2-3
Student representatives from district high schools, middle schools, and some elementary schools were invited to a two-hour discussion on March 2 at the Workday Student Center at Monte Vista High School.
“Mr. Roberts is an excellent Civil Rights activist speaker,” said freshman Vatsalya Verma, one of Cal High’s students in attendance. “His experience guides students in today’s generation to understand the differences in society.”
Schmitt chose to invite Roberts as a speaker for the district’s professional development day as he had previously met and listened to Roberts while working at his previous school district in San Diego.
“With our district’s focus on tolerance and inclusion, I thought his message would be an excellent addition to our work,” said Schmitt.
Roberts introduced himself and opened a discussion period where students asked him questions.
When asked about his experience at Central High, Roberts said, “Everything there was a learning opportunity, and that’s true. Wherever you are, whatever your circumstance, all you have is a learning opportunity.”
On their first day attending the school, a violent mob and the local police prevented the Little Rock Nine from even entering the school before President Dwight D. Eisenhower got involved and sent the National Guard to protect students.
In spite of continuous harassment from his peers, Roberts said he learned that he could not allow others to draw him into their fear.
“There is so much that we can learn from him,” said sophomore Aimee Carvajal, who is an officer for Cal’s Gay Straight Alliance. “It was definitely mind-opening and it made me reevaluate how I see the world and the ways that I act.”
Since the time that Roberts has left Central High, he has received a Congressional Gold Medal from President Bill Clinton and has shared his message with students and teachers around the nation.
“I liked how [Roberts] spoke about the idea of having an inner focus,” said Cal sociology teacher Eghosa Obaiza. “He told the students that his role models were healthy choice makers and that instead of trying to change people, they could be a role model for them.”
Added Schmitt, “I hope his inspirational story gives each student and staff member who heard his message the encouragement to be an ambassador of tolerance.”
As the discussion approached its end, a student in the back raised a hand and asked Roberts, “Do you think people can change?” There was a pause.
“We are a group of imperfect people in the universe,” said Roberts. “But I think people will make that choice if they are willing to do so.”