’M DRIVING HOME ONE DAY LAST SEPTEMBER with a major assignment on my mind—a formal presentation at an October conference in observance of the fiftieth anniversary of what some have called the most controversial book in Adventism: Questions on Doctrine. My radio is tuned to CSPAN, and on comes a live report of the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of one of the United States’ most significant civil rights events—the integration of an Arkansas high school in 1957 by a group that’s come to be known as the “Little Rock Nine.”
Suddenly, the stark irony in the coincidence of the two events as they unfolded 50 years ago struck me. On the one hand, an entire nation grappling with fundamental issues of human rights—innocent little children in danger of being killed simply for attempting to attend the school of their choice. On the other, a church preoccupied with fixing its own theology, seemingly oblivious that the very rights being agonized over in the larger community were being denied children within its own communion.
A couple of weeks later, I’m sitting around the dinner table at a retreat for religion students and professors from Canadian University College in Alberta, Canada, and I share the thoughts I had that day driving home. “Did you know,” responded CAUC religion chair Doug Matacio, “that one of those nine students was a Seventh-day Adventist?” “It would be nice,” he suggested, “if his story were featured in the Adventist Review.”
A personal friend of the particular student, Matacio was able to provide vital contact information, and after weeks of fruitless effort, I was finally able to catch up with Dr. Terrence Roberts between appointments in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We sat down for a lengthy interview, only part of which can be reproduced here.
Adams: Terry, what brought you here to Harrisburg?
Roberts: I’m here doing some work for an outfit called Facing History and Ourselves. Based in Boston, this organization actively promotes the learning of history for elementary and high school kids in the U.S. Today I spoke at several schools where the Facing History curriculum is being taught.
How many kids were involved in your lectures today?
I covered five schools with several sessions in each; so I would imagine maybe 15,000 kids altogether. It’s part of what I’ve been doing the past two years.
I’m talking to you today because of certain epochal developments in which you were involved 50 years ago. How do you look back on those events? The fiftieth anniversary of these events is a significant marker, and as a nation we’re giving time and space to ask questions about what actually happened in 1957 and its relevance for today. Have things changed? If so, how? Are conditions better today? If they’re not, then how can we make them better in the next 50 years? Those are some of the questions we should grapple with.
During the observances a few weeks ago, one member of your group said that it was really your parents who were the real heroes. They were the ones who stuck their necks out, who had the gumption to put their precious kids out there to test the dangerous waters. I think that’s quite true. You know, those were strong parents! They were willing to say yes to our choice to be involved! We were young, and so could make choices to do a lot of things that adults might have second thoughts about. But our parents were willing to say, “OK, we’ll support your efforts a hundred percent.”
“Support your efforts.” Do you mean it was you guys (the Nine) who took the initiative?
Yes. We were all volunteers.
How did this all come about?
The catalyst was the [U.S.] Supreme Court’s decision in the 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education, a case that basically changed the legal (educational) framework of this country. Prior to Brown, it was (virtually) constitutional to discriminate at all levels of education. The Brown decision cracked the status quo and said no, it’s no longer constitutional to discriminate in public education. So the old legal framework began to crumble, and the Little Rock school board simply decided to obey the law—quite remarkable in itself, there being no precedent for it.
In fact, their plan was to desegregate kindergarten through third grade. But the townspeople became so incensed that the board was forced to settle for grades 10 to 12. The board then sent representatives to the two Black high schools in the area—Horace Mann and Dunbar Junior High (whose ninth graders were invited to participate). Their approach
to these students was: We’re going to begin this program in September. How many of you want to be involved?
Where did you fall?
I was then a tenth grader at Horace Mann. And between the two schools, 150 kids said yes. This was about March or April of 1957, with the program set to commence in September. By the end of August, the 150 had dwindled down to 17.
It had a lot to do with the screening by the school board. Rumor had it that it was the intention of the board to weed out all of us—we’d have been down to zero by the time they finished. Rumor also had it that the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] found out about the process and forced the board to back off. By that time only 17 of us remained. And of that number, eight dropped out, leaving nine.
They dropped out voluntarily?
Voluntarily—because of the increasing fear. [Arkansas] Governor Orval Faubus had begun making remarks about armed caravans coming into town, about blood flowing in the streets of Little Rock. It was a pretty scary time!
Your parents, were they social activists?
Not in the least. They were blue-collar workers, hardworking people. As I recall, my dad never had fewer than three jobs at a time. And my mom ran her own catering business out of our home. So they just worked.
Take me back to that time. It’s Sunday, and you’re preparing for school on Monday. How are you feeling?
Actually, pretty good! I knew there’d be some opposition; that much was clear by then. But what I didn’t realize was its intensity. The opponents came out in large numbers, prepared to do whatever they felt necessary to keep us out. The governor by that time had decided to call out the National Guard, ostensibly to keep the peace. But what we didn’t know at the time was that they were there to block our entrance.
So now it’s Monday morning, the group arrives at school, the guards block your way, you go back home, and you don’t simply give up? No way! No way!
So what happened next?
The school board, feeling double-crossed by the governor,
literally fell apart, resulting in a virtual leadership vacuum. At this point, the NAACP became a very active participant, making available to us the services of their legal defense team. Wylie Branton was their lead attorney, assisted by Thurgood Marshall [who later would become a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court]. The two lawyers began pushing the case, confronting the governor, and forcing him into court. But repeatedly the governor refused to comply.
[U.S.] President [Dwight] Eisenhower then convened a meeting with Faubus up at Newport, Rhode Island [where the president was vacationing], and Faubus seemed to have agreed to support the school board’s decision. But he reneged. Eventually, Eisenhower, fed up with the governor, federalized the National Guard, ordered them away from the school site, and told the governor: You will allow those kids to go to school!
Not to be outmaneuvered, Faubus sent in the Little Rock police to “protect” us. That was a bad development. Little Rock police . . . Black kids! Not a good mix. We did go to school that day—three weeks following our first attempt—but it was chaos, and we came close to getting killed. The mob broke through police lines; and with some of the police joining them, they literally were coming into the school to get us. We had to be spirited out via a basement garage, a couple of squad cars speeding us out of there. Had there not been that escape route, we might have been killed that day.
What happened next?
Two days later, convinced that Faubus was an obstructionist, Eisenhower sent in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to take over security. The next day, Monday, September 23, nine of us assembled at Daisy Bates’ home early in the morning (Daisy Bates was the president of the state conference
of the NAACP). We got into an Army station wagon—all nine of us—a jeep full of soldiers in front of us and another behind. With sirens blaring, they went through town without stopping; and as we got to school, other soldiers of the 101st lined up to escort us in. They formed a barrier on both sides, and we went through. Inside, one soldier walked with each of us down the hall. They stayed right outside the door, so when we exited from one class, they went with us to the next.
Now, Eisenhower was no big Liberal, yet he sent in the 101st.
Eisenhower did it because there was a threat to the union. You see, the governor had begun to make public statements about Arkansas being a sovereign entity, and, as such, did not have to obey federal law. That got Eisenhower’s attention.
Were all nine of you in the same classroom?
No. We went to nine different classes. There was one senior in our group, five of us were juniors, and three were tenth graders. We were assigned home rooms alphabetically, and because none of our names were similar, we were all over the map. In that sense, instead of speaking about the Little Rock Nine, one may well talk about the “Little Rock one, nine times!”
Do you remember the reaction of the White students and teachers that first day?
Very vividly. Every class I walked into that first day, several White students got up and left, but not before telling me off and letting me know they weren’t prepared to go to school with me.
And the teacher would be standing right there?
Uh-huh. In those classes where the teachers were in sympathy with the departing students, there was virtually no reaction. But in other classes, where the teacher was not in sympathy, it was different. My [White] algebra teacher, for example, explained that there’d be no nonsense in her class.
So here you are, a bunch of young kids; you’re all over the news; then you go home that first day after school. What’s the reaction of your parents? your relatives? your neighbors? A kind of general excitement about what was going on, I would say; a lot of buzz; a lot of general support, and 100 percent backing from our parents and siblings. Some Black people in my neighborhood were very afraid, however—for economic reasons: What if I give my support and lose my job?
It was a very real concern, because a lot of them did lose their jobs as part of the retaliation on the part of the White folk in the town. They couldn’t keep us out of school, but they could fire their Black workers—and that’s exactly what happened in a lot of cases. In fact, there were 10 of us students the night before our first appearance at the school. Jane Hill was with the group—and, actually, when you look at some archival photos, her picture shows up. But her dad worked for a White employer, and his boss called him up that night and said, “If you send Jane to Central High, don’t bother coming to work.” So Mr. Hill pulled her out at the eleventh hour. But his boss fired him anyway.
The 101st certainly did not remain forever, so how did you get to school on a regular basis?
Volunteers in the community drove us. We never walked to school after that first time, even if my family lived exactly six blocks from Central High. It was too dangerous to walk.
In a school of some 2,000 students and in such a hostile atmosphere, how were you guys able to focus, to concentrate? Wasn’t easy. But here again, I think our preparation in terms of study habits helped us sort of filter out the noise.
Was there ever a time during that year when you finally felt comfortable?
On the playground, in the foyer, and in the hallways, we got beaten around—yes, physically. One of our number, Melba [Pattillo] Beals, wrote a book about the experience (Warriors Don’t Cry). Yeah, by the end of that year we were pretty battered—physically and psychologically. Nor did school authorities go out of their way to protect us.
Did you graduate from Little Rock?
No. I spent one year there as a junior (1957-1958). But the following year (1958-1959), in a direct effort to stop any further desegregation, the governor closed down all public high schools in Little Rock.
What did students do?
For my part, I moved to Los Angeles, where we had relatives, and enrolled in L.A. High School that September. In December my entire family moved to L.A. But those kids who did not have similar resources and no money for private school were out in the cold—idle for an entire year! Interest in education waned; many dropped out altogether. Some joined the military. Others got into crime or became pregnant. The impact was huge!
What happened after that year?
As a result of another Supreme Court action (Cooper v. Aaron, 1958), Little Rock High reopened on an integrated basis, this time without the Army. But only three of the Little Rock Nine eventually graduated from Central. The rest of us graduated at schools in other parts of the U.S.
Did you ever come to feel hate for what you experienced?
No. Part of what I learned very early in life was that I didn’t have enough life force to waste on hating. I learned that from my mom, who was probably one of the wisest people on the planet!
What level of support did you receive from the faculty at Central High?
It was mixed. Most of the teachers were not that pleased to see us. My English teacher said to me one day: “Why do you want to come to our school? Why don’t you go back to your own school?” And she made the question sound so legitimate that I honestly didn’t know how to respond.
Did she penalize you in any way—gradewise?
Hard to tell. I got a B in her class—probably deserved an A; but I decided not to fight it.
Did your common experience serve to bond the nine of you together over the years?
Absolutely! We know where one another are I have e-mails right now from a couple of them. Together we’ve established the Little Rock Nine Foundation, providing scholarship assistance to young people who’re preparing for college. We also offer consultation to school districts around the country on issues of [racial/ethnic] difference.
Were your parents Seventh-day Adventists?
My mom was, but my dad was never a member. When I was quite young, maybe 3 or 4, my mom joined the church in Little Rock, and we were taken along as kids. Later—I guess I must have been about 12 or 13—I joined the church in Little Rock, and then transferred my membership to Los Angeles. While I was in graduate school in southern Illinois, I attended an Adventist church in Marion, Illinois. Afterward, I went west to PUC [Pacific Union College], where I joined the faculty—from 1975-1977. After that I signed on at St. Helena Hospital and Health Center in Deer Park, down the hill from PUC—from 1977-1985.
So what happened at the end of this period?
At that point, my wife and I moved down to Los Angeles. And it was around this time that we became rather disenchanted with the church because of its slow movement on racial issues. That was around 1994. What had kept us in the church for a long time was the church’s emphasis on health and education. It made so much sense! But we always sort of chafed over our inability to move faster on race.
Today you and your wife maintain a keen interest in physical fitness. Does that derive from your Adventist background? Absolutely. My wife grew up Adventist, and the evidence is so overwhelming, when you look at the health statistics. Adventists don’t suffer nearly the percentage of heart attacks and other debilitating diseases (cancer of the colon, etc.) as the general population. Avoiding the intake of substances like alcohol, cola, meat products—it works! That’s what makes it so aggravating to see the church fall short in the critical areas of human justice when we have all these good things going for us. It’s a shame!
So you’d say the racial issue was a major factor?
Oh, absolutely! We still show up from time to time at the Berean Church, our former home church in Los Angeles, but not on any regular basis.
If, based on your experience, you could give one brief message to Adventists, what would it be?
I would say that the message of Jesus Christ (as I read it) is that we have to become involved in issues of social justice. We’ve got to look out for people in society who, because of the oppressive forces, aren’t doing well. That’s what Jesus seemed to do. He went about helping the downtrodden.
It’s important for us as Adventist people, as Christian people, as spiritual people, to understand the need to work toward social justice. (And in many ways Adventism is heavily involved—involved in humanitarian work, in work with refugees, etc.)
I recently ran across a concept, out of the Hebrew tradition, called tikkun olam. It means “repairing the world.” The idea is that all of us are called upon to help repair the world, even though we know in advance that we probably would not complete the job.
That rings true with me; it resonates loudly, because when
I look around and see injustice, I can’t imagine taking a hands-off approach. I don’t think a Christian—of any stripe—can afford to be neutral.
Roy Adams is associate editor of the Adventist Review.