Dr. Terrence Roberts, a central figure in the civil rights movement as a teenager in Arkansas in the 1950s, is appearing at Monte Vista High School this week, highlighting his message about tolerance and the need for dialogue to students and educators in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District.
As a high school junior living in the state's capital in 1957, Roberts was among the "Little Rock Nine," the first black students to integrate the city's previously all-white Central High School. Initially blocked by the Arkansas National Guard, the nine students were only able to enter the campus after the U.S. Army intervened.
Roberts, now 75, spoke to dozens of students and district administrators in separate sessions at Monte Vista on Thursday, and he is scheduled to speak to hundreds of SRVUSD employees Friday morning at the Danville campus.
He opened up about the abuse he encountered while desegregating Central High, shared how he endured in the face of discrimination and offered his thoughts on racism and intolerance in America during his two-hour morning session with a group of about 150 middle and high school students.
"We have to wake up a large portion of the population," Roberts said to the teenagers from across the district gathered in the second-floor library in school's Workday Student Center. "We have a very different narrative of who we are ... the narrative has never matched the reality."
SRVUSD officials said Roberts' visit is part of the district's focus to promote open and honest conversations about discrimination and the impact of words and actions.
"Dr. Roberts has an incredible message for acceptance and understanding that transcends generations," SRVUSD superintendent Rick Schmitt said in a statement this week.
"History matters. It is through understanding the road we have traveled that we can accept different viewpoints and each other," he added. "I am so grateful that Dr. Roberts is willing to share his message of being an upstander to discrimination with our community. His message can only shift one's perspective as we better understand what it means to fight for equality."
The students in attendance Thursday were invited by their principals, with 10 students from each middle school and 15 from each high school, according to district spokeswoman Elizabeth Graswich. Many chosen students represent diversity groups, such as black student union or gay-straight alliance chapters, or hold other leadership positions on campus.
The morning session opened with a video on the Little Rock Nine, including archival clips at Central High from the late 1950s and footage of them returning to the school as adults in the 1990s with President Bill Clinton. In the adult interviews, they reflected on the hostility, brutality and harassment they endured during those high school years.
Roberts then addressed the group for about 15 minutes before answering questions. The local students asked him about his experiences being among the Little Rock Nine, how to face challenges as a teenager, how to address racism and intolerance and other topics.
"These kids gave us holy hell that year," Roberts recalled about the 1957-58 school year at Central High. "Had the soldiers not been with us, we would have been killed. There's no doubt in my mind."
The Little Rock Nine volunteered to be the first students to integrate Little Rock high schools in the wake of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which declared state laws segregating public schools unconstitutional.
For Roberts, it meant going to a school six blocks from home for his junior year, as opposed to the all-black campus on the other side of the city.
But school integration wouldn't come without a fight in Little Rock.
Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus opposed the effort and sent the state's national guard to prevent the nine students from entering the campus, a move countered by President Dwight D. Eisenhower sending in U.S. Army troops to intervene.
With Army soldiers stationed outside, the students were able to attend classes, but they still faced harassment and violence inside the school, Roberts recalled.
He said he's often asked why the Little Rock Nine volunteered to "put yourself through that."
"We had the moral high ground. We had the law on our side," Roberts added. "The better question is: Why were they trying to keep us out?"
Roberts encouraged the students to keep proper personal perspective, especially when handling people with "the perception of you as being 'the other.'"
He said many children think they have to make everybody like them, but that shouldn't be the focus. "There are millions of people out there who hate you, some with vile passion. Get over it," he added. "You can decide that you love you."
Graswich said district officials hope the students who heard Roberts on Thursday will become ambassadors and share his pro-equality message with their peers.
His message will also reach district employees, with him having presented to all principals and assistant principals Thursday afternoon and him set to offer a keynote address to more than 2,000 employees during a professional development program Friday morning -- each also at Monte Vista.
Roberts comes to the district several months after multiple incidents of racist graffiti were reported at two Valley high schools -- California High in San Ramon and Roberts' host, Monte Vista.
He made an apparent nod to the graffiti to students during his opening, saying, "I understand some crazy stuff has been happening here."
According to Graswich, last fall's graffiti incidents weren't the driving force for bringing Roberts to the district -- "I don't think it's cause and effect," she said -- but those situations have led to a "renewed focus" on the district's efforts with inclusion and culturally responsive teaching and learning.
"We doubled down on our message," she added.
Graswich also pointed to the work of the district's Climate Committee and "Words Matter" initiative, and that district this year has partnered with the Anti-Defamation League on the "No Place for Hate" program and staff training.