Following his speech at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Jan. 31, civil rights activist Terrence Roberts was awarded a key to the city. Photo by Kyan Mahzouf.

Famed civil rights activist Terrence Roberts visited and spoke in Santa Cruz for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation and a discussion panel at UC Santa Cruz this week.

Roberts was part of the “Little Rock Nine,” a group of nine black students who became the first to attend an all-white high school in Little Rock, Ark. in 1957, just three years after the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

At the convocation, Roberts, a peaceful activist, spoke about his choice to love his enemy, as Martin Luther King Jr. taught him to do when he was a high school student in Little Rock.

“As human beings we have this belief that we have to fight to keep what we have,” Roberts said. “My mother told me, ‘You are an animal, this much is true. But you are a human animal. You don’t have to fight for anything.’”

Roberts received his master’s in psychology at UCLA and currently maintains a private psychology center.

At the 27th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation held in Santa Cruz’s Civic Auditorium Monday night, the audience nearly filled the venue.

Wearing gold and purple, Inner Light Ministries Choir welcomed the audience by performing traditional civil rights and contemporary gospel songs.

As Roberts took the stage, he was met by a standing ovation.

The next day, he came to the Stevenson Event Center to address a panel of UCSC students and audience members.

Jeff Rockwell, UCSC director of special events for university relations, said the M.L.K. Jr. Convocation Committee chose Roberts to speak in Santa Cruz.

As the chair of that committee, Rockwell also said that the UCSC panelists were picked by the Rosa Parks African American Theme House (R.PAATH) community in Stevenson.

“What a perfect parallel,” Rockwell said. “These guys are trying to bring desegregation to Stevenson. They are RAs and students who believe in the ideal.”

The R.PAATH was started last year in response to hate crimes across the UC community, as a way to foster racial harmony on campus.

Only 2.6 percent of the UC Santa Cruz population is black.

Tiffany Loftin, chair of the Student Union Assembly, introduced Roberts by telling the audience about his academic and professional career.

This background and his experiences in the civil rights-era South have equipped Roberts to give advice to audiences.

Student panelist third-year Dt Amajoyi kicked off the event with a short speech.

“We should know that it is possible to create change, that it is necessary to spread awareness, that it is worth it to stand up for what you believe in, even if you are standing alone,” Amajoyi said.

One of the panelists asked how Roberts was able to overcome the pain of being discriminated against.

“The first thing to recognize is that you’ve been wounded,” he said. “The actual healing of that will include reconciliation with the person who wounded you.”

Roberts stated that the civil rights movement did not begin in the 1950s — but 335 years before that, when slavery began.

Roberts said during the panel that anything is possible and humans can make the choice not to believe in racist ideology.

“The U.S. is an affirmative action state and we’ve never had integration,” Roberts said. “The overwhelming majority of us prefer something else. Everyone is afraid to crack the crust. If we are willing to poke through the crust I’m willing to do it. As long as we continue to be this pseudo-community, we cannot be a community.”

An audience member communicated his discontent with the administration’s treatment issues affecting black people on campus and asked for advice.

“You need to learn how to navigate your environment,” Roberts said. “Racism is not running around in a white hood anymore. It’s sitting around the boardroom table.”

Camilla Cooper, a third-year theater arts major, discussed the relevance of the topic.

“The civil rights movement hasn’t died and we are reigniting it here today,” she said.

Roberts said the lack of progress until the 20th century was a result of people being people.

“When you are born, you step into a drama that is already underway,” Roberts said. “That was the case with me when I was born in Little Rock in December 1941.”

Roberts said that education is the key to progress, and it is the most important tool an individual can utilize.

“The problem with humans is our beliefs in mythological constructs,” Roberts said. “There is no such thing as race. The word itself is new to the lexicon. We the people bought it. I meet people and they say, ‘I’m proud to be a part of fill-in-the-blank race.’ I just smile and walk away. Smiling and walking away is my usual response to idiocy.”