Civil Rights icon recalls Little Rock Nine history

May 25, 2012
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(Gazette Photo by Laura Plummer) Dr. Terrence Roberts speaks at the Curley K-8 School on May 17.

By Laura Plummer, Special to the Gazette

Civil Rights icon Dr. Terrence Roberts visited the Curley K-8 School on May 17 to recount his experience as one of the Little Rock Nine, the students involved in a historic confrontation about school desegregation.

“It was life-threatening all the time being black in the South,” said Roberts. “There I was in Little Rock, thinking I’d been dropped off in the wrong place.”

Roberts and eight other black teens enrolled in the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. The governor called out the National Guard to block them from entering the building. In a landmark showdown, President Dwight Eisenhower sent in the U.S. Army to protect the students and allow them to attend school.

Roberts was brought to the Curley School on Pershing Road by Facing History and Ourselves, an organization started in Brookline that currently operates in school systems across the country, including the Boston Public Schools. Eighth-graders at the Curley are taught a yearlong curriculum about race relations titled “Facing History and Ourselves: Choices of Little Rock,” which uses the experience of the Little Rock Nine and the desegregation efforts of the 1950s as a backdrop for a contemporary discourse on race relations in the United States.

The school’s own jazz trio ushered in guests, and student Anijah Mooltrey set the tone with a rendition of the freedom song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Students presented black-and-white documentary footage of the Little Rock Nine boldly marching into Central High School past hordes of angry white protestors, sometimes with violent consequences.

Roberts received a standing ovation and hollers of enthusiasm from students as he glided across the stage to receive the microphone.

Although 1957 is now a distant memory, Roberts said he is reluctant to package the event and label it as “history.” According to Roberts, one of the biggest failings of the modern educational system is “the idea that history happened in the past. History is who we are. If we don’t know our history, we don’t know who we are.”

Roberts also emphasized the limitations of our nation’s Constitution as it was originally drafted. “We the people” did not include African-Americans, he reminded the audience.

“People think of the Founding Fathers as all-knowing and all-seeing,” he said. “Oh, no. They were imperfect.”

The Facing History and Ourselves curriculum encourages students to apply a high degree of literacy and critical thinking to historical trends and to cultivate personal responsibility and self-awareness in the present. Ronald Hobson, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at the Curley, celebrated the “Choices of Little Rock” course as a cornerstone of his teaching experience, and said he finds its lessons invaluable.

“Before I started teaching this [curriculum], I was just teaching straight book stuff,” said Hobson to the crowd.

Roberts is also a strong supporter of what Facing History is attempting to do in modern schools. He said one thing he’d always wanted and never had was the chance to have a civilized discourse with his many aggressors at Central High, a roundtable discussion to expose the roots of racial prejudice.

Roots are important to Roberts, who recently abandoned a book he was writing about civility. Talking about being civil, he said, would be like “pruning the tree when the roots are rotted. There’s a reason why we’re uncivil. Pruning won’t help it.”

Roberts also encouraged a high level of civic responsibility and political involvement, and an overhaul of the current educational system. He suggested replacing standardized testing with critical thinking skills, and mandatory two-year study-abroad experiences for all American students.

“Children need to see how people in other places think and act,” he said.

Roberts speaks at community events and schools throughout the nation. Earlier this month, which marked the 58th anniversary of the historical Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation court decision, Roberts toured schools throughout Boston. He continues to interact with the remaining Little Rock Nine. For more information, see littlerock9.com.

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