by Terrence Roberts

Early Racial Incident Inspired Little Rock Nine Member

Following a racial incident in a local hamburger joint in the early 1950s, thirteen-year-old Terrence Roberts was able to find the resolve that eventually helped him become one of nine African American students who desegregated Central High School in 1957.

Roberts recalls the incident in his new book, Lessons from Little Rock. In the restaurant that day, as he had many other days, Roberts ordered food for carry-out because all of the seats were reserved for white patrons only. While waiting for his order, Roberts absent-mindedly sat down at the counter. He realized that a hush had fallen over the place, and everyone suddenly seemed to be giving him threatening looks. He canceled his order and left.

As he walked home, Roberts remembers wondering "what it would take for [him] to be treated like a real human being." He writes that he was "on the verge of tears, full of despair and hopelessness, ashamed of my own powerlessness, wondering yet again if this was the only kind of life I could expect to live in Little Rock."

Lessons from Little Rock details Roberts's boyhood days in the segregated South, clearly showing the effects of racism on his daily life. He writes that, even as a youngster, he had a "growing sense of the evils of segregation." The biggest barriers to desegregation, Roberts recalls, were not uneducated whites or "the fringe element," but white community leaders and their "unwillingness to challenge the ways in which racism interferes with the lives and ambitions of black people."

Roberts's memoir is a compelling study of institutional racism and a testament to the personal resolve that he and each member of the Little Rock Nine used to survive their first days at Central High, where mobs of white people threatened them, and fellow students physically and emotionally abused them.

Roberts was among several hundred African American students who volunteered to participate in the desegregation of Central High, although only nine ultimately participated. After the group made several attempts to attend Central High in the fall of 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered federal troops to the school. A soldier was assigned to protect each African American student, but Roberts recalls that he and the others suffered physical and verbal abuse on a daily basis throughout the school year.

He writes that the Little Rock Nine were urged during a visit by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to maintain a non-violent stance against their tormentors, based on spiritual teachings. Included in Lessons from Little Rock is a tribute to the eight other African American students who survived the early days of school desegregation.

Roberts believes that, while the desegregation of Central High helped open a door for African Americans, the struggle to end racism is an ongoing process. "We must confront the issues that continue to confound us. We must learn ways to accept and embrace difference, rid ourselves of the disabling thought patterns that keep us at arm's length from each other, and work toward establishing a just and truly democratic society."

6 x 9, 200 pages, 30 b/w photographs (many never before published)
$24.95 cloth
ISBN 978-1-935106 | 1-935106-11-2