Civil rights pioneer gives students a lesson in history

A member of the Little Rock Nine fielded questions on the ongoing battle to end racism last week at a gathering of Huntington Beach middle and high school students born well after school segregation became illegal.

"When did segregation officially end?" one student asked.

"The truth of the matter is we're still working on it," civil rights pioneer Terrence Roberts replied.

Hundreds of students from throughout the city filled the bleachers in Huntington Beach High School's gym on March 20 to listen to Roberts talk about the civil rights movement and hear his reminders to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Roberts gave an abridged version of his experience at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, when he and eight other African American students were the first to integrate an all-white high school. He was 15 at the time and didn't hesitate to apply when he was told that Central was going to admit black students.

As a self-proclaimed nerd, Roberts said he couldn't pass up the opportunity to seek a better education, no matter how dangerous the situation might be because of racial tensions. He also had the support of his parents to break the color barrier.

He told the students he was beaten daily at school but that he and the other black students refused to respond with violence.

"The kids at Central didn't respect that," Roberts said. "They didn't appreciate the nuances of nonviolence. They simply saw us as stationary targets."

Roberts addressed the students as part of the annual HB Reads program, which encourages everyone in town to read the same title. The program has been emphasizing diversity in recent years and this year made Roberts' "Lessons from Little Rock" its selection.

Julie Ybarra, an eighth-grade English teacher at Marine View Middle School, who attended the speech, has spent the past several months teaching her students about the civil rights movement.

"Just to have him here, and to meet someone that's been through something like that and has the courage to do something like that, is amazing," she said.

One student asked Roberts what remains a difficult question: How do you end discrimination?

Roberts said the answers begin with individual change.

"You have to ask yourself, 'In what way am I perpetuating this ideology of racism?'" Roberts said. "If you find out that you are involved in that, what are you willing to do to stop it?"

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