Pasadena civil rights hero recalls meeting with MLK
A Pasadena civil rights hero, who was a member of the “Little Rock Nine”, said he was encouraged to continue his struggle for desegregation after a chance meeting with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
School was anything but safe for Terrence Roberts and eight of his classmates — spit and racial slurs were heaped upon them as they entered and departed school daily.
But, they kept on attending class. Ultimately, the courage of the “Little Rock Nine” became a watershed moment of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. And, it is among the stories that can be reflected upon during Black History Month in Pasadena, where Roberts, 75, has lived for several years.
The Little Rock Nine
Their humiliation highlighted the ability of ordinary citizens, even children, to stand up for justice.
Advocates of integration achieved a crucial victory with the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954.
The decision represented a substantial leap forward, however integrating schools would be quite difficult.
Racial tensions and opposition was strong. Throughout the country civil rights leaders and white segregationists were struggling with something that had never been done before — the integration of public schools.
In late spring of 1958 Roberts was 16. His friend, Ernie Green, one of the Little Rock Nine, was preparing to graduate from Little Rock Central High School. Because of the concerns for safety and security only his immediate family would attend.
The encouragement and concern of MLK
However, Dr. King attended after he passed himself off as an uncle. According to Roberts this was fairly early in King’s ministry and not many people knew him.
“As I think about it, it didn’t matter anyway because to most he was just another black person,” said Roberts.
Roberts met King at the home of Daisy Bates for some post adulation and dialogue.
“Seven of us gathered with Dr. King, as he was concerned about what was going on in Little Rock,” Roberts recalled.
Roberts said King encouraged the students to continue their fight. He made sure “we realized what was going on because we were quite young. He was very encouraging.”
Earlier that school year King dispatched preachers Jim Lawson and Glenn Smiley, a white civil rights consultant and leader to speak to them about non-violence.
It was through them the Little Rock Nine learned about Dr. King’s concerns for their safety.
According to Roberts, King told Lawson and Smiley that the school children were quite young, and had not been tested. He was not sure if they were even ready for non-violent protests.
Roberts recalls King, Lawson and Smiley felt “if these nine students could say that we love thou enemy, then we are ready. We said yeah.”
During the early years of the civil rights movement few realized that in order to achieve things that were worthwhile, there must be sacrifice.
“I remember Dr. King as a young man who was really focused on equality for black people,” Roberts recalled. “I didn’t sense this was a singular moment. Because of our youth we were unschooled and uninformed about so many things.”
— By Xavier Higgs, correspondent. Mr. Higgs is a freelance multimedia journalist based in the Greater Los Angeles area. He writes about politics, education and crime.