Education

One of the Little Rock Nine says he doesn't accept 'progress narrative' in speech at Coe College

Terrence Roberts reacts to an audience member’s comment Friday evening during his speech at the Coe College Athletics and Recreation Complex in Cedar Rapids. Roberts, 76, was one of the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to attend classes in 1957 at Little Rock Central High School. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Terrence Roberts reacts to an audience member’s comment Friday evening during his speech at the Coe College Athletics and Recreation Complex in Cedar Rapids. Roberts, 76, was one of the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to attend classes in 1957 at Little Rock Central High School. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — As a young black teenager, Terrence Roberts faced angry, racist mobs when he enrolled in his neighborhood school.

Roberts, 76, became one of the Little Rock Nine in 1957, when President Dwight Eisenhower ordered Army troops to escort the students into the segregated Little Rock Central High School.

It’s been more than 60 years since Roberts and eight other black students walked into that formerly all-white school.

But Roberts said Friday night in Cedar Rapids that segregation and racism remain a national scar in America.

“We did not solve a problem,” Roberts said. “We were involved in the continuing process of trying to get people to understand that there is a problem. No, it is not resolved — far from it.”

Some 200 people heard Roberts speak at the Coe College Athletics and Recreation Complex, where he urged the audience to take on the challenge of addressing racism.

“You have to start looking internally at who you are,” Roberts said. “Challenge yourself. I’ve done that — it’s difficult, there’s no doubt about it.”

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After the forced integration in Little Rock, the public schools were closed during the 1958-59 school year, and Roberts completed his senior year in Los Angeles.

He graduated from California State University in Los Angeles, earned a master’s degree from UCLA’s School of Social Welfare and a Ph.D. in psychology from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in 1976.

He’s been on college faculties, run a hospital and worked as an assistant college dean before retiring in 2008.

The event at Coe was Roberts’ 12th appearance in Eastern Iowa this week, with the other events in area schools, where more than 4,000 students heard him talk, according to historian Elizabeth Dinschel from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, which co-sponsored the talk.

“The ultimate goal is to connect kids to history,” she said.

Andy Cooley, who brought her sons, Javier, 13, and Jose, 15, to hear Roberts said she believes it’s her duty to teach her sons about their past.

“If someone is alive and can pour into their lives our history, it is my job as a parent to make sure I bring them here so they can see it live and in color,” she said.

Cooley and others in the audience agreed with Roberts that not enough has changed since his school days.

“This country’s not interested in integration. If we were, we would have done it,” Roberts said, noting most Americans continue to live monocultural and monoracial lives.

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“I don’t accept the progress narrative,” he continued. “ ... We get lost in the progress narrative. We forget that the diseased roots are still there.”

The difficult work of rooting out racism, Roberts said, lies with each individual person.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Roberts said. “But let’s lean in the direction of being better.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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