Terrence Roberts, keynote speaker for Eastern Michigan University’s 34th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, urges us to seek out and speak the truth, knowing that doing so can bring consequences

Terrence Roberts, Ph.D., MLK keynote speaker

YPSILANTI – Speak the truth. Speak your truth.

It sounds simple, but can be a powerful challenge amid the countervailing forces in today’s world.

But that’s what Terrence Roberts urged – a desire to see truth embraced by all of us – in his keynote address during Eastern Michigan University’s 34th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration on Monday, Jan. 20. Roberts spoke to a capacity crowd in the Student Center Auditorium while many others watched his talk via livestream.

Roberts is one of the “Little Rock Nine” who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, following the 1955 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education case to integrate schools. 

As a 15-year-old eleventh grader, he joined eight other students who were chosen after a selection process and became one of the first nine black students to go to a formerly segregated large public high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.

A leader of all people

Roberts said it’s vital to seek and speak the truth, citing many examples. Among them is a present textbook assertion that Dr. King was a great leader of black people. No, Roberts noted, he is a great leader of all people.

Another example of needed truth is King’s 1968 unveiling of his criticism for the Vietnam War, echoed more recently in criticisms of the Iraq War, both truths that had to be told, in Roberts’ estimation.

Roberts recalled King’s 1967 book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” which advocated for human rights and a sense of hope.

“We’re uneasy with injustice, but unwilling to pay a significant price to eradicate it,” Roberts said, adding that the question still persists and that chaos can be an agent for positive change at times.

The mythology of ‘race’

Roberts said not to accept what he terms “the confining mythology of race,” saying there is no such thing, but that instead we are far more defined and bound by our common ancestry.

Roberts’ other observations and points included:

• We need a female president to run the country.

• “We have lost our moral compass as a nation (and) if this continues, it may play out in a very bad way,” Roberts said, citing examples of fallen empires, such as Egypt.

• When members of his all-black school were asked who’d volunteer to attend Central High School, 150 hands shot up, including his. But then came many parental vetoes around town along with the school board backing down. When the NAACP mounted a challenge, the 10 remaining volunteers were tabbed.

You are the CEO of your own learning

• Roberts’ approach to life and personal growth was shaped early on, by his first-grade teacher, who told her students that, “You must become the CEO in charge of your own learning.” Roberts says he “took that to heart” and kept on learning, no matter where he was or who he was with.

• Roberts cautioned against reflexive activism, saying you should learn first before protesting.  “Prepare, prepare, prepare vs. making a career out of simply marching,” he said. “It’s so important to learn.”

In summing up his theme, Roberts offered a biblical phrase that has persisted through the ages and remains useful in many contexts:

“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

About Eastern Michigan University

Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves nearly 18,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.

January 22, 2020

Written by:
Geoff Larcom

Geoff Larcom