Today I had a conversation with a man who I have read about in history books. I’ve also seen a few movies about him. And the night Barack Obama was elected President; I saw this man’s face on a television set in a bar in Selma, Alabama. He was talking, but I couldn’t hear. I was outside on the sidewalk.
Selma, Alabama – starting point for three famous voting rights marches in the late 1960’s. One of the marches ended the day it began. That day is known as “bloody Sunday” in Civil Rights lore. It was a day of billy-clubs and tear gas and as much fear and hatred as ever has been concentrated in one small city. I thought there would be a party in Selma on election night, and I drove two hours with my daughter and best friend just to be a part of it.
The streets were curiously empty except for a few people holding campaign signs out by
the famous bridge where protestors began their 50-mile walk to Montgomery over 40 years ago. I snapped a picture as we drove across it. The results weren’t in yet, but it looked like Obama was going to win.
I parked the car and the three of us got out to walk around. Selma is a pretty little southern town with red brick buildings trimmed in white, a courthouse with a cupola, a square of green in the middle, clean wide sidewalks, and thriving little businesses that close down by 5:30. Of course, it’s the south, and there is a prominent Baptist church just across the street from “the projects.”
I don’t know why the streets were empty. There were only a few men in the bar where we stopped to peek in a window to check the electoral count. A man was being interviewed, and an on-screen banner identified the talking head as “Terrence Roberts: one of the Little Rock Nine.”
I knew the story, but I hadn’t seen pictures of him as an adult. The picture I was familiar with is the one you see here. It is the one you usually see in historical accounts of the Little Rock Nine.
There is another picture that shows the 1,000 soldiers it took to open the doors of Little Rock High School for the nine African American students who bravely walked through them.
Today I got to talk to Terrence Roberts – Dr. Roberts now. After that historic year in Little Rock, his family moved to Los Angeles for his senior year. He then went to college in southern California and eventually earned his PhD in psychology somewhere in the Midwest. Personally, I don’t know if I would have gone back anywhere near the Mississippi again, but he’s obviously of better mettle than I.
I’ll be writing about the interview in the Sentinel this week, and we talked about a lot of things that will never make it into my article. But the thing I can’t stop thinking about – the image that makes my throat constrict and my eyes burn – is what it must have felt like to be his mother.
What did she say to him that morning when he left for his first day at the new school? What did she want to say but didn’t? She must have been scared out of her mind! She knew the things that were done and said to people who were bucking for change in 1957 Little Rock.
I can’t imagine what I would ever care about so much that I would be willing to let my baby feel what that young man was going to feel that day. I guess I don’t know what it is to live every minute knowing that the deck is stacked against me — to know that it will never be fair for my children; and that in spite of their intelligence and hard work, they’ll never get the opportunities that other kids get. Intellectually, I feel like I know, but clearly, I don’t. If I did, maybe I could imagine how such a personal sacrifice was worth it.
Dr. Roberts is retired now. He does some public speaking, and he consults with businesses that need help creating a welcoming environment for a diverse work force. It sounds like he’s really good at what he does, and finds a great deal of satisfaction in his work. He talks a lot about how isolated we all are from one another, and how nothing will really change until we learn to be good neighbors. His mother would, no doubt, be very proud.