June 24, 2023

Recently, on a beautiful spring day in Little Rock, Arkansas, I sat on a bench in front of Central High School listening to the wind rustling through the trees. I closed my eyes and imagined what it must have been like for members of the Little Rock Nine who walked bravely among an angry, screaming mob sixty-five years ago. I imagined what sage advice those nine teenagers would tell us today about our fight against fear, hate, and injustice.

This summer, the NLC community won’t have to imagine what that advice would be. We will have the immense honor to hear directly from Dr. Terrence Roberts, one of the original Little Rock Nine students, during NLC Convention this August 3-6th.

Karen Pandy-Cherry & Chad Cherry on the steps of Little Rock Central High
Fifteen-year-old Dr. Terrence Roberts denied entrance to Little Rock Central High School by the Arkansas National Guard.

Dr. Roberts was just 15 years old in 1957, three years after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of 1954, which signaled the end of racial segregation in U.S. schools. He was one of over a hundred students who raised their hands to volunteer to become the first Black Little Rock high school students to enroll at Central High.

Terrence Roberts, Ernest Green, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls, dubbed the Little Rock Nine, moved against hate and injustice, in spite of their fear. In September 1957, the Nine attempted to enter the high school but were blocked by the Arkansas National Guard and a mob of violent white residents.

The Little Rock Nine, all teenagers, faced verbal and physical attacks daily as well as consistent hate mail and threatening calls to their homes. The violence was so bad that National Guardsmen were assigned to walk each of the Little Rock Nine from class to class, standing outside the classrooms during class time.

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escorting the Little Rock Nine students into Central High School in Little Rock by order of President Eisenhower
With over 1,200 U.S. soldiers on campus, they were escorted to and from school in a military station wagon

In a 2013 interview, Dr. Roberts said, “I had an ongoing relationship with fear. I had never been that fearful in my life. I went to school fearful and remained fearful all day. I went home with fear. After a time I figured out that, if I’m going to survive this thing, I better make a real acquaintanceship with fear. I began owning it. Once I owned the fear, it dissipated a little bit. I was able to go where I wanted to go with the fear. I developed a mantra, ‘Fear will not interfere with goal-directed behavior.’”

Fast forward almost 66 years later and there is so much for us to fear in the present day United States. Black people are still being murdered at the hands of those who should protect us, a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body is being criminalized, the truth of history is being silenced, and hate legislation is being peddled openly across the United States.

And yet – there is hope. Legacy builders like Dr. Roberts, and the Little Rock Nine, paved the way for trailblazers like you, me, and NLC alumni all across this great country.

This year, at the 2023 NLC Convention in Little Rock, Dr. Roberts will join attendees to share his wisdom, remind us of our power-filled history, and inspire us to continue our fight for progress.

During our inaugural New Legacy Tour on August 4th, NLC alumni will be guided through a learning experience to Central High School, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, and the Clinton Library. Join Dr. Roberts and your fellow NLC alumni in Little Rock, Arkansas August 3-6th, as we continue to Create Change Where Change is Needed.

Dr. Terrence Roberts then and now.

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