History coming to life

The boy who once required military intervention to attend a high school in Arkansas will be a warmly received guest at a high school in Huntington Beach.

That's the symbolic truth as Terrence Roberts — one of the black students known as the "Little Rock Nine," who broke the color barrier at Little Rock Central High School in 1957 — prepares to visit Surf City as part of the seventh annual HB Reads program.

With with death of Trayvon Martin, the controversial comments by Paula Deen, and the movie "12 Years a Slave" and other stories dominating the news, race has been a hot topic in America of late — well, not that it's ever been that cold — but a browse through "Lessons from Little Rock," Roberts' memoir of his perilous teen years, serves as a reminder of how attitudes have changed in half a century.

Thursday evening, HB Reads will kick off with a panel discussion at Barnes & Noble at Bella Terra. The two-month series of citywide events will end with a speech by Roberts at Huntington Beach High School on March 20. (The author will not be present at Thursday's discussion.) Every year, HB Reads spotlights a book about diversity and human rights, and previous entries have focused on Mexican migrants, autism, African refugees and more.

Roberts, who lives in Pasadena and runs a management consultant firm, has an ample resume as a guest speaker: On Monday, the author visited two colleges in Pennsylvania to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In between campus appearances, Roberts spoke to the Independent about life as a civil-rights advocate and the steps America still needs to take toward equality. The following are excerpts from the conversation:


Today is MLK Day. What do you think about on this day every year?

Well, it varies depending on what's going on in my life. Today, I was simply thinking about what kinds of conversations I might have with the students and preparing myself for that. But nothing more than that.

Do you speak to students very often now?

All the time, yes. That's a big part of what I've been doing in January and February because Martin Luther King Day comes up in January, and then there's Black History Month in February. Those are two months where I spend a lot of time talking with students.

Did you know Dr. King personally?

I did, yes. We got to meet him in Little Rock. It was very early in his ministry. He was quite young at the time and beginning to develop his perspective on nonviolence. That's one of the things we talked about as a group of nine, about whether or not adopting a policy of nonviolence made sense for us. And eventually, we did. We went into the high school as nonviolent people.

In retrospect, do you think that was the right choice?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Sure. Because I believed in those principles, because to me, even without a full explanation, it made sense. Because violence doesn't accomplish anything, and it tends to bring more pain than any kind of resolution.

There's a line in your book, "We must face our past with unflinching honesty if we are to determine the most appropriate next steps for our future." As we're speaking right now, the schools are out, of course, for MLK Day. Do you think many kids are giving thought to what this day really means?

Well, I don't know, but I would certainly hope so. That's what it's for.

So this year, you'll speak to Huntington Beach students as part of the HB Reads program. When you talk to young people — like the ones you'll speak to at Huntington Beach High — about the civil rights movement, do you feel like it seems real to a lot of them, or do a lot of them think of the '50s or the '60s as kind of an odd, bygone time by now?

Well, I imagine they would be lined up along a wide continuum, with more or less knowledge about that period. Some [are well-versed] as a result of being in classrooms where teachers are more aware, help prepare them by directing their studies and so forth, but on the other extreme, you'll have some kids who probably won't know very much at all — probably the function of lack of interest and focus on other things.

When you talk with young people today, do they ever talk to you about race — about how they view race relations nowadays?

Oh, yeah, all the time.

What kinds of things do you hear?

Well, again, a wide range of topics. Some kids are situated in places where the issue of race is not something that takes up a lot of time and space in their lives. Others face issues of race on a daily basis, based on where they are and the people around them. So, an extremely wide range of circumstances.

In your book, you say that a lot of the changes in the last half-century have really been cosmetic ones — meaning that we've changed the official rules regarding race, but a lot of the old attitudes are still around. Where can we see that most clearly nowadays, in your opinion?

Well, I think on the national stage, we see it most clearly in the opposition to President Obama. That's probably one giant laboratory for looking at these issues of race in terms of the old attitudes being prevalent — in the attitudes of those who are so much in opposition that they refuse to cooperate with him in the Congress. That, for me, is an ongoing lesson for anybody who cares to look. And then, in more local levels, you find that the overwhelming majority of people tend to choose to live mono-racial, monocultural lives. That's another indicator.

When you say they choose to lead monocultural lives, how exactly do you mean?

Well, for instance, most people tend to live and interact with people who are pretty much like themselves in terms of racial group membership. You find very few neighborhoods where you have an extreme variety of kinds of people living together. Mostly, there are enclaves of different racial groups, and that's fairly typical across this entire nation.

Sad to say, that is true. I think we probably see that less in Southern California than we do in other parts of the country, would you say?

In some parts of Southern California, but not all.

Certainly not all, sure. What do you see today that encourages you most in terms of race in America?

Well, I think what I see in young people especially — high school kids, middle school kids — a lot of them are eager to distance themselves from some of the old attitudes held by their parents and grandparents. I see a lot of that, so that's fairly encouraging.

You mentioned Obama a minute ago. When he was elected president in 2008, how did that make you feel?

Well, I think I felt very good about it, because I saw him as the most viable candidate for the office, given the opponents. I didn't see any rationale for casting a vote for McCain/Palin. That made absolutely no sense. So he was the obvious choice, and as it has turned out, he's brought a tremendous amount to the office. But what we do find is, again, he's unable to really carry out the full extent of his agenda because of the organized opposition. The Republicans are on record as having met, having assembled together to plan a strategy of being opposed.

If I can play devil's advocate here, are you entirely sure that the opposition to Obama is due to his race? I mean, you look at all the opposition that Democrats had against Bush — you think of all the Iraq war protests and just the other forms of opposition against him; you think of the fact that Clinton got impeached, that Carter was voted out of office, that Bush senior was voted out of office. Can you say for sure that the opposition against Obama really has anything to do with color?

Oh, yeah, I can say with certainty. That's absolutely clear to me.

Is there anything in particular that you can point to?

Well, just the attitude on the part of those who are in opposition. Very rarely would a person in Congress stand up to the elected president and yell out, "You're a liar" in a public forum. That sort of disrespect probably would not be accorded to Clinton or Bush. I can't recall anything that kind of crazy with either of those two men.

There has been some criticism about Obama that he hasn't done enough to improve the lives of blacks in America. Do you think that's a valid criticism of his administration?

No. No one president can resolve all of those issues. That makes absolutely no sense. I think people are being unrealistic when they make those charges. The process of governing this nation requires all branches of the government to work in tandem, to cooperate, to identify problems and develop strategies for resolving them, and you cannot put the whole weight of that simply on the president.

Have you had a chance to meet Obama personally?


When was that?

Well, before he was elected president, we had a fundraiser. A group of us in Pasadena hosted a fundraiser, and he and his wife, Michelle, came out. And then I've been to the White House for affairs, and I've talked to him there.

I know that you've been back to Central High School in Little Rock for some of the milestones there. Do you spend a lot of time in the South nowadays where you grew up?

Yes, I do. Little Rock, you know, because the school now is a national park, there are often programs presented there and I'm part of the programming. I visit several times a year, actually.

How does the atmosphere feel in the South nowadays from the viewpoint of a black man of your generation who went through the experiences that you did?

Well, actually, how I view the South is, in terms of this country, anything south of Canada represents the South, so I'm always in the South. It's just a matter of what regional variety of racism I have to experience based on where I am. And that's a function of this country's entire history, because for hundreds of years, we were by law dedicated to following a racist ideology. If you can do that for so long by law, it tends to become part of the substructure of the entire society. So, in that sense, we are always in the South when we are in this country.

What are some ways that that manifests itself?

When you think about policies and programs and institutionalized practices that have been developed over the years, those are present in every state — just in terms of who gets elected to office. If you look at who holds public office in most municipalities, by and large you find white males in charge of them. That has been fairly consistent throughout our existence. So that's a barometer for me that tells us that we have not really made the kinds of changes that I would like to see.

Now, of course, there's also a chorus of black conservative pundits — people like Larry Elder, Bill Cosby, Shelby Steele — who argue that a lot of the problems in the black community really are self-inflicted: these things like the high school dropout rate, teen pregnancy, gang membership and so on. Do you think there's any truth in what those people are saying?

What I think those folk are saying is that they're using themselves as barometers and they're saying, "Look, I made it. Why can't the rest of you make it?" I find that to be inadequate as a point of reference. What they're talking about is that there are social problems that we face, but when you try and "racialize" those problems, the argument breaks down. Because if you look at society at large in terms of people having problems, black people are not having all the problems because, statistically, they don't number as much as other people.

So Cosby and people like that, I think, need to reassess what they're talking about. They become darlings for those on the extreme right, however, because they're speaking a language that they understand, so they get trotted out as examples, and their message is seen as the most important and most correct message. I disagree with them. I disagree with them.

I think in this country, if you isolate a group of people and charge them with the responsibility, you forget about the underlying dynamics. You take something like the men who are put in prison. The overwhelming majority of people in prison are black and brown men. That just makes no sense, again, given the statistical presence of these folk in society. Then, when you begin to delve into what happens to make that possible, you see what's there, but if you never look, you never see it. And then you can blithely charge the ones who are being imprisoned as being responsible for their own imprisonment.

If You Go

What: Panel discussion to kick off 2014 HB Reads program

Where: Barnes & Noble, Bella Terra, 7881 Edinger Ave., Suite 110, Huntington Beach

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Cost: Free

Information: (714) 897-8781 or http://www.hbreads.org

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