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The Fierce Urgency of Now

Member of Little Rock Nine delivers Mind Matters talk.

Cal State LA alumnus and Civil Rights icon, Dr. Terrence Roberts, speaking at Mind Matters event.

Cal State LA alumnus and Civil Rights icon, Dr. Terrence Roberts, speaking at Mind Matters event.

Emilio Flores

Emilio Flores

Cal State LA alumnus and Civil Rights icon, Dr. Terrence Roberts, speaking at Mind Matters event.

Anthony Karambelas, Staff Reporter

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Sixty-one years ago, a fearless fifteen-year-old girl braved a screaming mob of teenagers. They taunted and threatened her with enough venom to break a grown man, but she trudged onward. What stood between her and the front door of Little Rock Central High School? Racism.

That day, in September of 1957, is one forever seared into the fabric of our nation’s history. On Tuesday, March 6th, Cal State LA got a chance to participate in this same history, hosting an eye-opening talk by one of the Little Rock Nine: Dr. Terrence Roberts.

Roberts’ talk, “The Fierce Urgency of Now”, was more than a history lesson on the year of 1957. It was a light pointing to the mountain of work that America has yet to conquer.

“You can right away see how our culture, in terms of the United States of America, has let so many of us down.” said Roberts, “How many of us truly feel that we are valued beyond measure? That we are of primary value in a world of meaningful action?”

To Roberts, there is an urgency to the work must we must accomplish:

“Why is that? Well, none of us are on the planet for very long. I don’t want to frighten anyone, but life is short,” he said. “There is no present without a past. Everything counts. What you do today will determine in very large measure the range of options available to you tomorrow.”

The work of the Little Rock Nine may have only been one thread woven into the complex tapestry that is the civil rights movement, but it caused a ripple effect that is experienced today. Times were different when Roberts first contemplated the fight for his liberties.

“Even though I was this young, bawling infant, I could feel the vibes. It didn’t feel right. Later I found out what it was, it was Plessy weighing heavily on the people. And then about the time I acquired the power of speech, I wanted some answers.”

It took time before Roberts realized that to get these answers, he was going to need to find them himself. What he found astonished him; from 1619 to 1941, the history was written down for all to see.

“Then I realized what had happened. They’d run a game on us. The facts were there, but what we got was the national narrative, which is different from the facts. Oh yeah, the version of history you get in school more often than not has nothing to do with the true facts.”

As a first-hand witness to the events of Sept. 4, Roberts provided a clearer picture of the facts of the Little Rock Nine:

“Now, by the way, there were more than nine of us to begin with, just so you know. We had about a hundred-and-fifty all ready to go. We all volunteered. Then we go home, ‘Hey mom and dad, I volunteered to be in a, young know, experiment. I’m gonna desegregate the school.’ What?!”

He continued, “And then there were ten. The night before school, there were ten. For a very brief moment we were the Little Rock Ten. The Problem was Jane Hill’s dad got a call from his white employer and the message was very terse: ‘Look if you send Jane to school tomorrow, do not bother coming back to work.’ Now, that is something you have to heed. He pulled her out. But guess what? He lost his job anyway. Now I could’ve told him that. At that point, I was fifteen years old, I knew the dynamic.”

Roberts knew that what he was doing was risky. He knew that what he was doing could get him killed. Years later, he also recognized that he wasn’t the only person taking a risk. His parents had to decide.

“Now, I can’t explain to you how these parents came to that decision because it did mean going against the intuitive grain which is that your child will be killed. My parents had to face that,” he said. “The Fierce Urgency of Now means you have to go anyway.”

Roberts’ talk was both informative and engaging, serious and humorous. It was more a conversation than a lecture. Most important of all, it addressed real issues that still plague our society.

“What we did in Little Rock didn’t change anything,” said Roberts. “Our task in ‘57 was to simply start a process, but not intentionally thinking that this was going to make a really big change. Why? Because when you think about it, we are so committed to maintaining the walls of separation in this country. Over ninety percent of us individually choose monoracial, monocultural lives to begin with.”

If anything, Roberts talk was a wake-up call. Before looking to solve the problems in America, Roberts would have individuals reflect on their own actions.

The event was sponsored by the Mind Matters Initiative, a program established by President William Covino and First Lady, Dr. Debbie Covino, to aid Cal State LA students through the college process.

President Covino said, “Mind Matters activities–from lectures such as this one, to mindfulness workshops, and visits by therapy pets–-are designed to help students achieve inner well-being, which is a crucial first step toward realizing their potential to create positive change.”

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The Fierce Urgency of Now