UNCG Campus Weekly

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At MLK Celebration, Tales of Little Rock Nine

011911Feature_RobertsDr. Terrence Roberts, Tuesday night’s MLK Celebration speaker, was one of the Little Rock Nine. They were African-American students who, unsuccessful in their first attempt to enter the formerly segregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, approached it on Sept. 25, 1957, and found themselves again confronted by a hostile crowd. But on that day, they were escorted by the 101st Airborne, which had been ordered to Little Rock by President Dwight Eisenhower.

The Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision three years earlier struck down segregation in public schools and these nine students put the decision to the test. Roberts was a 15 year old junior at the time.

Hours before the celebration in Aycock Auditorium, he spoke with CW in the Alumni House.

What did he hope would be the main take-away message from his talk later that evening?

He acknowledged that everyone would take away something a little different. “It would be to have an awareness of and a respect for the historical march through time and space. Nothing happens unless there’s some precedent. You don’t exist in a vacuum. So who we are in the year 2011 is a consequence of who others were years ago.

“If students had more of a grasp of that connection I think they would be better able to make decisions today.”

What are the big issues that today’s students can take on and stand up for? “Wow. Two things come to mind.” The first was the he would not presume to tell someone else they should take on something. “But there are issues: There are kids in America who go to bed hungry every night. That seems to be something that’s overlooked a lot. If young people are interested in doing something, they might want to find out why that is. Why in this country, with an abundance of food, we have people who go hungry.

“The Civil Rights movement started in 1619,” he said, referring to the fact that as Europeans settled, they brought slavery, “and it continues apace today.” There was an obvious difference in who had rights and who didn’t, he said, from the beginnings of our nation. “When you think of this country’s history, we’ve been in a civil rights battle forever. We’re not finished. We’re not finished.”

The MLK Celebration was presented by The Division of Student Affairs, The Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Dean of Undergraduate Studies.

This year’s UNCG MLK Service award was presented to Kent Singletary, a recent graduate of the Communication Studies Department and a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. He is a founding corps member of City Year Miami, a non-profit partnership with Americorps that unites diverse groups of young people for a full year of over 1600 hours of service. During his time with City Year Miami he worked in an impoverished immigrant section of North Miami Beach, where he built alliances between the Miami school system, the community and major businesses. In addition, he co-created the “Gentleman’s Quest” as part of City Year, which served as a motivational club for men where they could share their talents and skills with other males in the organization. The initiative was so successful that it spread to other City Year sites across the nation and influenced the creation of “Pink Ladies”, a similar initiative for female group members.

Singletary also was part of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which served to bring forth the facts surrounding the shootings at Greensboro’s Morningside Homes in 1979, between white supremacists and Communist Workers Party activists. Singletary is in the process of creating a non-profit organization called “Stepping UP!” to provide financial and emotional assistance to adults as they pursue their educations.

After a performance by the Neo Black Society Gospel Choir, Roberts concluded the evening by sharing memories of that pivotal year, 1957. “We got beaten up … on a daily basis,” he said. The soldiers were no help once they were inside the school. But he weathered it. “My choice was to learn.”

Learning was a theme throughout his extemporaneous talk. He learned a lot of important life lessons in his all-Black schools as he grew up. He learned a lesson when he, as a young teenager, once placed a to-go order and then sat down – the hamburger joint fell silent and he quickly left. “I learned the rules of segregation,” he said.

He has since learned that race is a fantasy, “a mythological construct.” We’re all unique, he said.

As he spoke, he never ventured too far from lessons taken from Little Rock.

Fear does not have to be a barrier, he explained. “So whatever you fear at UNCG,” he told the students,” put it in your pocket, and keep on going.”

By Mike Harris
Photograph by Mike Harris