Roberts urges students to press on in urgent struggle for civil rights

Dr. Terrence Roberts begins his speech at the 2017 Blavatt Lecture

Dr. Terrence Roberts begins his speech at the 2017 Blavatt Lecture; Photo courtesy of Gettysburg College

By Brendan Salyards, Staff Writer

The 18th annual Blavatt Lecture featured Dr. Terrence Roberts, a civil rights pioneer and member of the Little Rock Nine, who spoke to a crowded audience in the College Union Building Ballroom.

Roberts, who spoke at Gettysburg College in 1995, gave a speech entitled “The Fierce Urgency of Civil Rights for All,” and afterward, he answered questions from the audience.

Dr. Kenneth Mott, who retires this year as a Professor of Political Science focusing on the American judiciary, opened the event with a brief history of segregation and civil rights in the United States.

Mott traced the history of legalized segregation to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896. Some fifty-eight years later, the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down which ended the doctrine which Mott described as “a hell of a lot more separation than equality.”

A year later, the Supreme Court ruled that desegregation should occur with “all deliberate speed.”

By 1957, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas was to be integrated. Roberts was part of the “Little Rock Nine,” the first group of black students to enroll at Central High. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus opposed the integration of the school and sought to deny their admittance, but President Dwight Eisenhower called in the National Guard, who ensured the students would be allowed to attend.

With this context, Roberts asserted that the United States had become an expert in racism. Drawing on Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that one must perform an activity for ten thousand hours to become an expert, Roberts said the United States practiced legalized racism for 335 years from the time the first African slaves arrived to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Accordingly, the United States was an expert.

After one year at Central High School, Roberts moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1958 and he graduated from Los Angeles High School.

He went on to earn a doctoral degree in psychology and as worked as a teacher, a college dean, and in business. Roberts recalled his last visit to campus and read part of The Gettysburgian‘s coverage in 1995. In doing so, he suggested that the United States has not made much progress since then.

He suggested that the images which see today are not that different from the 18th and 19th century and that, while civil rights continue to be promised, they have been denied. Roberts stated that from his birth until the Brown verdict he had been legally inferior to white people but, once he was placed at the same level as whites he aspired to be a model citizen.

As a child, Roberts said that he was inquisitive and often skeptical of what he called the popular narrative of American history. He advised that every student must take “executive control of learning and become CEOs of [their own] learning enterprises” in order to take advantage of the opportunity to become educated and question the status quo.

Roberts later emphasized the importance of getting out of one’s comfort zone and interacting with individuals who hold different opinions. Both, he said, are required to make change as is a level of determination at which one will do whatever it takes to achieve the desired goal.

As Roberts concluded the Q&A session, he received a question about he finds the strength to continue fighting for civil rights. Ultimately, he says, there is an internal cost, but that people must continue to reach out and do the hard work it requires.

“However many years you have, you have been given enough life force to sustain you for those years,” he said. “If you harbor anger, bitterness, upset about what other people might do, then, you’re going to truncate your life … I decreed as a very young person that I would act and live in an attitude of a priori forgiveness. I forgive you before you have done unto me. It acts to heal the wounds. Forgiveness heals your own wounds, and it sends a message to others that, no matter how badly you have treated me, you are still a human being, and you are worth saving. That’s the important part.”

Benjamin Pontz, news editor, contributed to this report and recorded and edited the audio of the speech.

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Author: Benjamin Pontz

Benjamin Pontz '20 serves as managing news editor of The Gettysburgian, a position he has held since the middle of his first year, during which he wrote 50 articles on topics ranging from student activism on campus to sports. Ben also served as the event coverage and social media coordinator and led the paper's inaugural efforts using Facebook Live and live tweeting events on campus. He is a political science and public policy double major with a minor in music, and he reads up to seven newspapers daily. Follow him on Twitter @benpontz.

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