'New roots'

Pasadena resident Dr. Terrence Roberts recounts his experience as one of the Little Rock Nine in 1957

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/11/2016

In 1957, three years after the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional, nine African-American students were enrolled in previously white-only Little Rock Central High School. One of those nine students was Dr. Terrence Roberts, now a management consultant and author who has lived in Pasadena for 30 years.

The students were initially prevented from entering the school by hordes of angry, racist protesters and the Arkansas National Guard, which was deployed by Gov. Orval Faubus. President Dwight Eisenhower had to call in federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school.

Roberts completed his junior year at Little Rock Central, then moved to Los Angeles where he graduated from high school and received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Cal State LA and a master’s in social welfare from UCLA; he then earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has been a member of the Pacific Union College faculty, the director of mental health at St. Helena Hospital and Health Center and assistant dean in the UCLA School of Social Welfare. He also served as core faculty and co-chair of the Master of Arts in Psychology program at Antioch University Los Angeles.

He founded his own management-consulting firm, Terrence Roberts Consulting, as well as an organization with his wife Rita called Roberts & Roberts LLC, which is dedicated to helping foster racial dialogues in communities, schools, churches and businesses.

Roberts has written two books: a memoir about his experience in 1957 called “Lessons From Little Rock,” and reflections on community social responsibility and welfare called “Simple Not Easy.”

He has received numerous awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal presented by President Bill Clinton, and serves on several organizational boards, including the Western Justice Center Foundation and the Little Rock Nine Foundation.

Roberts, who is a member of the city’s Northwest Commission, recently spoke with Pasadena Weekly about his life and times.

Pasadena Weekly: What was your experience like as one of the Little Rock Nine?

Dr. Terrence Roberts: It was scary, to be sure. No question about it. We were living in a society at that time where the rules were all skewed against people of color. That was a shock to me. As a very young person, of course, I didn’t understand it. But then I grew, and when I became a teenager I began to really understand what was going on. There was nothing about it that made any sense, though. So when the Supreme Court decided in 1954 to change the law, that was exciting, because the court said, “It will no longer be constitutional to discriminate,” and that led to the school board in Little Rock deciding to open the schools. Central High School, where I went, was my neighborhood school, so it simply made sense for me to enroll there. I expected there to be opposition, but not for it to be so fierce. But they turned out in droves and they were pretty much of one mind that they didn’t want this change. And that was scary, because they were basically saying, “You have to leave, and if you stay we will kill you.” They made that very clear.

Were there any white people who were supportive of the Little Rock Nine attending Central High?

Absolutely. The difficulty in this country is that a lot of people try to color-code everything. There were always people of all racial groups who were like-minded on some things, but not every single white person in Little Rock wanted to kill me. But by the same token, not every single black person was all that happy about what we were doing, either. So you can’t color-code everything. A lot of people talk about things as being black or white. But in reality, it’s just a matter of choice. So yeah, there were white people in Little Rock who were pretty anxious to have things move along and get to the point where we could share in the benefits of being in a society. Unfortunately, that is not a popular notion even today.

What was it like the rest of the school year when you actually got into the school and started attending classes on a regular basis? Were you ever physically attacked?

We were mentally and physically attacked by other students in school on a daily basis. That’s something many people don’t realize. Somebody asked me recently, “How long did it take for people to settle down and begin to accept you?” I almost laughed in response because the question was so optimistic. But I understood, because under more rational circumstances you would think that people would get it out of their system and then get on with life. Not these folks. They were so wedded to the notion of segregation and discriminatory practices that they were unwilling to give that up. They fought to the end. They’re still fighting.

Did you know at the time that this was going to become such a well-known incident and a turning point in the country’s race relations, or did it seem like one incident among many?

At the time, the latter. I think it seemed like one in a long line of events historically. But it’s interesting, and it’s been surprising, too, over the years, to find out how much the story of Little Rock compels the attention of people, and I think it’s because of all the varying elements of the story. One of the key elements was the old federal government versus states’ rights mentality. The governor of Arkansas was a states’ rights person. It also involved children. Another element was that we were attempting to do something in a community that didn’t have local support, and though that may sound mundane, that is so very important. With any kind of change in an environment, if you don’t have buy-in by community members, change is pretty destined to fail.

How did your website TalkingAboutRace.com come about?

My wife and I have for a long time been concerned about people who live in this country not acknowledging the fact that race is pretty much a part of our lives every day. And yet the strange thing about that is, people don’t really know what race is. So we thought we should have some conversations to get people talking about 1) what race is all about, and 2) in what ways has it historically and traditionally interrupted our ability to be fully human. And then if we can get those conversations started, perhaps we then might be able to move into action for change. That’s pretty much the genesis of the idea. We started it in August 2015, so it’s a very new project.

Has America made progress in terms of race relations during the course of your life, or do you still see too much hate in our society?

I don’t think it’s about either of those things, race relations or hate. I think it’s about the fundamental issue of this country having been founded on the principles of racism. And that’s very different. When you look at our institutions, philosophies, and systems, all of that is so intimately tied to notions that are no longer acceptable in public discourse, and yet those are the things upon which we’re building. Race relations to me is symbolic of trimming a tree, making the tree look nice, getting the leaves shaped and so forth, while the roots are still diseased. So our real focus has to be finding out what we can do to create new roots.

Tell me about the connection you noticed between the victims of the recent South Carolina church shooting and the Little Rock Nine.

That was a very personal connection, and I didn’t realize it was going to happen, but as I reviewed the news reports about that incident, I realized that here was a group of six females and three males, and it so mirrored our group of nine that it was scary, because in a real sense what it said to me was, “Nothing has really changed.” We can be gunned down, we can be set upon, and nothing changes. That was like a moment in time that had been transplanted from 1957 to 2015. That was pretty scary.

A version of this story first appeared in the December Northwest Commission Newsletter.

 CCLP panel reveals press is reexamining its approach to covering elections

Gibbs and Todd
Chuck Todd and Nancy Gibbs

The press is reexamining how it covers presidential campaigns following surprises during this year’s unorthodox election season, according to a panel hosted by TIME Magazine and the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP). Surprises such as the popularity of Donald Trump.

“I didn’t take Trump seriously for two and a half months,” said Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press. “A lot of us [in the media] were snobs about [Trump’s campaign at first), and we were wrong about it. The story is not about Trump. The story is about the electorate that he tapped into.”

The panel event was held at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, on Sunday, Feb. 7, two days before the New Hampshire presidential primary. About 300 people attended, half of whom were students from nearby colleges and high schools. TIME editor Nancy Gibbs moderated the panel, which included several top political journalists, including TIME Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer, TIME Washington correspondent Jay Newton-Small, ABC News analyst and special correspondent and CCLP senior fellow Matthew Dowd, and Todd.

The panel provided analysis of the major Republican and Democratic presidential candidates and covered topics like the uselessness of political ads despite the consultant class making mountains of money off them; taking Trump’s campaign seriously because of the seriousness of the electorate he has tapped into; anxiety about the transitioning economy; the mechanics of crafting a good debate question; the lack of good, smart people running for office; whether or not Clinton is running as a woman; and the craziness yet effectiveness of the presidential primary system.

Just before the panel event, entitled Super Sunday before the New Hampshire Primary, Todd had several presidential candidates on Meet the Press, including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Michael Scherer, Jay Newton-Small, Matthew Dowd, Chuck Todd, and Nancy Gibbs

Gibbs asked Todd about his performance as moderator of the Republican debate on Feb. 4. Todd said earlier moderators made the mistake of coming up with really good interview questions that were not good debate questions.

“A good debate question points out a distinction between candidates onstage,” said Todd. “You have to ask questions that help voters that [the candidates are] trying to appeal to in that moment deal with the distinctions that they may have. You throw out a concept, and let the candidates go back and forth.”

The panelists all agreed that Marco Rubio’s performance at the most recent Republican debate was a disastrous one for him, especially his repeating the exact same scripted line four times in a row after being criticized for being “robotic.”

“We have this universally flawed field of candidates and we’re being told to choose from them,” said Dowd. “Unless the parties respond to what’s happening, they will be ancient history.”

Todd and Dowd
Matthew Dowd and Chuck Todd

Todd noted that the situation gets worse every election cycle.

“We’re in a worse position now because we are in this vicious cycle where good people won’t run for office anymore,” he said. “The collective IQ of Congress goes down 10 points every two years because smart people won’t run.”

Dowd pointed out the popular conception that New Hampshire “picks presidents” and said, “You, New Hampshire voters, are about to pick a democratic socialist and a reality TV star; that’s about to happen.”

Scherer agreed that the current presidential primary process is “insane,” but added, “As crazy as it is, it’s pretty effective. There is a vetting that happens. It’s a grueling vetting. This process as absurd as it is objectively, and even undemocratically, it works.”

Todd agreed, adding, “As crazy as it is, it actually prepares future presidents temperamentally for the craziness of being president.”

About 300 people packed the ballroom of the Radisson Hotel, the de facto headquarters of the press in the heat of the primary campaign, including dozens of high school and college students studying politics.

Gibbs opened the event by talking about the significance of the New Hampshire primary, noting how all three of the last presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama—all lost the New Hampshire primary, despite New Hampshire’s reputation for “picking presidents.”

Cowan addressing crowd
Geoffrey Cowan delivering a presentation on the history of presidential primaries

CCLP director Geoffrey Cowan delivered a brief presentation about the history of the presidential primary, describing the four stages of selecting candidates: in the beginning presidential candidates were chosen by the members of Congress; in 1832 Andrew Jackson is widely credited as creating conventions to decide candidates; in 1912 Teddy Roosevelt championed the people’s right to rule through primaries; and in 1968 Cowan himself played a small role in changing primary rules.

As a student at Yale Law School in 1968, young Geoffrey Cowan founded the Commission on the Democratic Selection of Democratic Nominees to increase public participation in the presidential selection process while working for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. Cowan’s research led to a floor vote in the 1968 convention that resulted in sweeping reforms to the primary process.

Cowan’s new book is Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary. Dowd urged those in attendance to get the book, saying, “We have a tendency to put historical political figures on a pedestal, and what we learn here is that TR was an unbelievable political strategist.”

Cowan also urged the young people in the room to get involved in the political process.

“To the students here, the world is changing before your eyes,” said Cowan. “And just as a young Geoffrey Cowan played a role in changing the process, so can you. It’s a fun time to be alive, a fun time to be part of the political process.”

Todd and Dowd also encouraged the students in the audience to get involved in the political process.

“Hurry up and get involved and change the system if you’re pissed off and frustrated,” said Todd.

“People in this room, I hope you do this: anybody who wants to run for office, run as an independent for state rep, for city council, for state senate, for county commissioner, for Congress, whether it’s in 2018, 2020, or 2022,” said Dowd. “That’s the only fundamental way the system is going to change.”

Andrea Mitchell
Andrea Mitchell speaking to students
Super Sunday before the New Hampshire Primary
Green room 1
Geoffrey Baum addressing panelists in the green room
HKS video
Video of ABC’s Howard Smith discussing Geoffrey Cowan’s role in changing the primary process in 1968
panel 2
Panelists discussing the New Hampshire primary
Todd talking to students
Chuck Todd giving advice to aspiring journalists
Green room 2
Geoffrey Cowan, Matthew Dowd, and Chuck Todd
panel posing
Geoffrey Cowan, Michael Scherer, Jay Newton-Small, Matthew Dowd, Chuck Todd, and Nancy Gibbs

CCLP & TIME to host panel on primary in New Hampshire featuring Chuck Todd

CCLP is teaming up with TIME to host a brunch and panel discussion from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 7 in Manchester, New Hampshire, entitled “Super Sunday before the New Hampshire Primary.” The panel will be moderated by Time editor Nancy Gibbs and will feature Chuck Todd, NBC News Political Director, Moderator and Managing Editor of “Meet the Press” and host of “MTP Daily” on MSNBC; Matthew Dowd, ABC News political analyst; Jay Newton-SmallTime Washington correspondent; and Michael SchererTime Washington bureau chief.

The event is free and will take place at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, located at 700 Elm St. It is being hosted by Michael Duffy, Deputy Managing Editor, TimeNorman Pearlstine, Chief Content Officer, Time Inc.; and Geoffrey Cowan, Director, USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy and author of Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary.

To RSVP, visit the registration page or email Carolee Lowry at clowry1@timeinc.com