MANSFIELD - Dr. Terrence James Roberts, one of the "Little Rock Nine," told a small crowd assembled at the university campus here what he has learned in looking back at his experiences while working to integrate a public school in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.
The author of "Lessons from Little Rock" told a group of students and community members that he learned to play by the rules of "separate but equal," as were practiced when he was a youth throughout the south in the 1940s and 50s, because "if I didn't obey them I could be killed."
Roberts told the story of an incident that brought that to light in a big way in 1954, the same year, incidentally, that the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Topeka, changed its mind on the matter of separate but equal and made it no longer legal to discriminate on the basis of color.
He brought up the case of Emmitt Till, a young black boy who was murdered while on vacation in Mississippi for slighting a white woman. Roberts realized he was the same age as young Emmitt.
He recalled an incident at the Crystal Burger, where people of color could go in and order food, but sitting down was not allowed.
"I was 13, and sometimes at that age, we forget the rules. I ordered my food and then I sat down," he said.
"Everything in that establishment stopped, and as they turned their heads to look at me, the message was palpable. I jumped down and ran out, crying, fearful, angry, in despair, but it was my epiphany, and I said to myself I can no longer go through this charade of obeying these laws. I realized how vulnerable I was at that point. The law of the land said it was OK to take me out with impunity," he recalled.
After the school board in Little Rock decided to obey the law and allow integration, Roberts said he volunteered to be one of the nine who would attend the all-white Central High School.
Initially, the nine young students were not allowed to enter because the governor of the state had called out the National Guard to block their entry.
But the next day, the president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, dispatched the 101st Airborne to escort the students into the school.
Not only did they escort them that day, but they remained with the students throughout the year to protect them from the white students who did not want them there.
"They all felt superior, which was not true, and their anger came out when they saw it," he said.
Roberts encouraged those in attendance to "figure out how to love, honor and embrace those who are different from what we happen to be in the short time we have on this Earth."
"Life is a pretty short enterprise. About 80 years. What will you do with that time span? It is very short when you compare it to eternity. You are here, and because you are here you have a responsibility to do something for the common good," he said.
He spoke of learning to "love his enemy" in church, but also from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who as a young minister, came to speak at his high school.
"He said if we were going to be non-violent we had to say we loved our enemy, otherwise it wouldn't work," he said.
In response to a question from a student about how soon after 1954 change began to happen in this country, he said, "we're working on it."
Roberts asked those in attendance to donate to a foundation established by the nine to provide scholarships to students at www.littlerock9.org.