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Complex Legacy of Little Rock : 2 Who Integrated Central High 30 Years Ago Recall the Hatred

September 04, 1987|BOB BAKER | Times Staff Writer and

The most poignant moment Terrance Roberts remembers from high school is being a gangly, sensitive, 15-year-old black kid confronted on the athletic field by a beefy white kid named McCauley who was brandishing a baseball bat. A bunch of other white kids formed a circle around them.

"The only thing I could think of was to look McCauley in the eye and not break the gaze," recalled Roberts, an assistant dean at UCLA's school of social welfare. "I said, 'If there's any spark of humanity in this guy at all, I'll find it or I won't find it.' So that's what I did. I stood there and looked at him.

"He came up and he half raised the bat and he said, 'Nigger, if you weren't so skinny. . . .' and then his voice trailed off and he dropped the bat and he walked away. I thought to myself then, 'I'm probably over the worst of it.' "

Millions of American blacks who were on the cutting edge of integration carry similar memories, some of them bloody. Roberts' memories are special, however, almost public property. They began 30 years ago today when he and eight other black children tried to enter classes at all-white Central High in Little Rock, Ark.

Within hours, the three boys and six girls became the stars of what was then the biggest story of America's civil rights movement, an ugly, dramatic struggle between emerging federal law and ingrained Southern segregation.

Central High was scheduled to integrate in 1957 under a federal court order based on the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that "separate but equal" schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional.

In defiance, Gov. Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to block integration. On Sept. 4, the first day the black children tried to enter Central High, they were stopped by guardsmen and an angry white mob that cursed and spat at them, forcing them to return to their homes.

The stalemate lasted three weeks. Then President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the guardsmen and sent 1,000 Army troops to Little Rock to control citizen opposition, the first time since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period that federal troops had been used to keep peace in any state. Amid a wave of epithets, the nine children finally entered school.

Years later, one of Roberts' black classmates, Melba Pattillo Beals, who now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, wrote in a magazine that the year of hostility and harassment she endured at Central High put "a core of steel" in her spine. "There was nothing you could ever threaten me with that I couldn't survive," she said.

The experiences of Roberts and a second member of the Little Rock 9 who settled in the Los Angeles area, Jefferson Thomas, paint a more complex portrait.

Roberts, 45, who lives with his wife in Pasadena and is the father of two grown daughters, left Arkansas after one year at Central High. There was little choice. In a gesture of contempt for integration, Faubus won the Arkansas Legislature's permission to close Central and Little Rock's other three high schools for the 1958-59 academic year. Several of Roberts' aunts and uncles had moved to Los Angeles. He completed high school at Los Angeles High.

Intelligent and personable as a boy, Roberts says the experience neither scarred him nor imbued him with a sense of destiny. It did not change him at all, he contends. Although Little Rock was mildly segregated by Southern standards, growing up had already educated him. "I had been a fairly astute observer of the social scene, and I knew that what was going on between the races was irrational," he said.

He, like many of the Little Rock 9, went on to professional success. Ernest Green was appointed an assistant secretary of labor by President Jimmy Carter and is vice president of a Washington investment office. Beals became a television newswoman, then a public relations woman. The others live more private lives. Thomas is a Department of Defense contract auditor. Thelma Mothershed Wair and Elizabeth Eckford live in Missouri, Minnijean Brown Trickey in Canada, Carlotta Walls LaNier in Denver and Gloria Ray Kalmark in Belgium.

The first day they tried to enter Central High was as bewildering as it was frightening, Roberts said. They were supposed to go as a group, but Eckford and Roberts went individually. Roberts walked from home--Central was much closer than his former all-black school, a 10-mile bus ride--and found himself immediately surrounded by reporters.

'It's Really Strange'

"They were the first phalanx. Outside them was the mob and outside the mob were the national guardsmen who were ringing the school. So there I am talking to reporters and it's really strange. I'm standing there answering questions and just outside these reporters are people who are spitting and cursing and calling me 'nigger' and 'Go back to Africa.'

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