People make choices. Choices make history. --Facing History and Ourselves
Dr. Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine, came recently to speak to the middle school students at Sinai Akiba Academy. Crowded into a room with over 150 teenagers, teachers, administrators, and parents, we listened with rapt attention as Dr. Roberts briefly told us about his experiences in Little Rock and then opened up the floor to questions. Whereas often during assemblies my middle school students are restless or chatty with their peers, during this hour, the room was absolutely silent; surprisingly, not one kid asked to go to the bathroom. And when Dr. Roberts was done speaking, more than twenty kids chose to miss their recess, crowding around Dr. Roberts to shake his hand and ask him more of their questions. My students got it. This was a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to talk to a man who made a choice that changed history.
In 1957, when Dr. Roberts was in the 10th grade at Horace Mann, an all-black school in Little Rock, Arkansas, a school board member approached the students and asked who would be interested in attending Central High, the all-white high school in the city. Dr. Roberts quipped, “At least 150 hands went up, but the count was off by at least one because I had two hands up.” Though one hundred fifty kids volunteered initially, the numbers soon dwindled as parents and children decided it was too risky. Dr. Roberts’ parents supported him fully and also assured him that they would support him if he made the choice to quit.
At first, Dr. Roberts was somewhat naïve about what integrating Central High would entail. When he showed up at Central High the first day, he admitted, “I didn’t think for a second that they [the National Guard] were there to keep us out. I thought they were there to keep the peace.”
He soon discovered the realities of what it meant to have made the choice he did. During the question and answer session, students probed Dr. Roberts’ thinking:
Student: What was your inspiration to go to school that day if you knew the next day you might not be alive?
Dr. Roberts: For once in my life, the law was on my side. Many people had already given their lives for this same struggle.
Student: Were you scared?
Dr. Roberts: I never thought I could be more scared.
Student: Were there times you regretted your decision?
Dr. Roberts: I wanted to quit every second of every day but I never regretted the decision. The worst times were late Sunday evenings, anticipating Monday morning. The best times were Friday evenings.
Student: Were you ever beaten?
Dr. Roberts: Every day. But we came to understand that we could survive that stuff. We came to understand it wasn’t about us. It was about an idea bigger than us.
Student: What was the best memory you had of Little Rock?
Dr. Roberts: Leaving there.
Student: How did you choose to go somewhere when you knew all these things would happen?
Dr. Roberts: If you deem it important enough, you go.
Student: How were you able to stand up against all the hate?
Dr. Roberts: I know who I am. If you know who you are at the core, you know you have the right to be you, wherever you choose to be.
As I was sitting and listening to Dr. Roberts and the exchanges between Dr. Roberts and my students, I was in awe – in awe that a fifteen-year-old boy could have had such a strong sense of who he was to make the choice he did. In Facing History classes, we often ask students to think critically about choices people have made in history and to identify the risks people took when making those choices. What makes Dr. Roberts so inspiring is that he knew the risks and he suffered tremendously, yet he never regretted his decision. This is precisely what is so hard to fathom; I can’t picture myself making the same choice.
So I left the room wondering: How do I bridge my sense of awe at meeting such an incredible upstander with my own doubts about the choice I might have made had I been in Dr. Roberts’ place? Though I would like to think that meeting someone like Dr. Roberts might make me more likely to be an upstander when I face situations of injustice in the future, I’m not necessarily sure that this is the case. I wonder if it’s possible to teach courage or if it’s something you just have.
As a teacher, I might not be able to explicitly teach my students how to be courageous, but I can give them opportunities to explore who they are and what they stand for. Dr. Roberts suggested that the key to being an upstander is knowing who you are, fully believing that “you have the right to be you, wherever you choose to be.” Facing History supports Dr. Roberts’ notion that there is a correlation between having a strong sense of identity and taking a stand against injustice. This is why the Facing History Scope and Sequence begins with “Identity,” focusing on how our identities influence our decision-making.
Dr. Roberts taught us that what matters most is knowing who you are and that our choices—however big or small—matter. Unlike Dr. Roberts, my students might not risk physical harm by being upstanders at school, but they might risk social standing or popularity or people perceiving them as “different.” To most middle schoolers, these risks can seem daunting. Perhaps Dr. Roberts’ story can put these risks in perspective for my students: If Dr. Roberts can face daily beatings and threats to his life to stand up for a cause he believes in then we can risk our social standing by standing up for a cause we believe in. As a teacher, I plan to continue to reinforce Dr. Roberts' message. What we think and what we do makes a difference.
- For extensive resources to hep you teach about Dr. Terrence Roberts and the Little Rock Nine, click here for Facing History and Ourselves' curricular guide: Choices in Little Rock.
- For a video of Dr. Terrence Roberts speaking about his experiences, click here.
- For Common Core writing prompts and strategies to deepen students' academic engagement with this moment in history, click here.