IRVINE — Civil rights history came alive this week when a member of the "Little Rock Nine" spoke at a private Jewish school about a touchstone in American history.
Terrence Roberts addressed Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School students Thursday about segregation and adhering to codes of nonviolence.
He was a featured guest speaker during the Facing History and Ourselves Jewish Education Program, which is sponsored by a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation.
"In any group of human beings conflict is inevitable, but combat is avoidable," Roberts said.
While Roberts described time as "neutral" — with life's drama continuously unfolding — it is up to the individual to choose when and where to make a stand against injustice.
His moment came at age 13, when he made the mistake of sitting at an all-white lunch counter, he said.
"It was like someone had frozen time," Roberts said of the instantaneous mass reaction of the restaurant's patrons that he had broken "society's code."
Roberts left the restaurant physically unscathed, but the emotional encounter launched him on the path that would lead him to become one of the nine children selected to breach segregation at Little Rock's Central High School in 1957.
"Sometimes, in retrospect, it's hard for me to figure out how we survived the year even with the guards," Roberts said of the daily harassment and violence he and the other members of the "Nine" were subjected to by Central High students, parents and faculty.
Robert's first-person narrative painted a flesh and bone picture of segregation for the students — exactly what school officials were hoping to achieve as part of Facing History and Ourselves, a nationwide program.
The goal is to encourage students to "look at history and connect with it personally and with empathy," said teacher Damian Zoppo, the program liaison, "and to encourage students to take a stand when injustice is there and not be bystanders."
Another important element of the program is to study the psychology of the perpetrators and of the victims so that their behavior can be understood and impart lessons, Upper School Principal Laura Roth said.
"The No. 1 goal is kindness and acceptance,whether that means accepting someone who is a little bit or a whole lot different from you," Roth said. "I want to send a message to teenagers that difference is actual a whole lot more interesting."