Terrence Roberts, one of the ¿Little Rock Nine¿ who broke the color barrier at Central High School in Arkansas in 1957, will be the featured author in this year¿s HB Reads program. (Courtesy TerrenceRoberts.com / January 21, 2014)

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The boy who once required military intervention to attend a high school in Arkansas will be a warmly received guest at a high school in Huntington Beach.

That's the symbolic truth as Terrence Roberts — one of the black students known as the "Little Rock Nine," who broke the color barrier at Little Rock Central High School in 1957 — prepares to visit Surf City as part of the seventh annual HB Reads program.

With with death of Trayvon Martin, the controversial comments by Paula Deen, and the movie "12 Years a Slave" and other stories dominating the news, race has been a hot topic in America of late — well, not that it's ever been that cold — but a browse through "Lessons from Little Rock," Roberts' memoir of his perilous teen years, serves as a reminder of how attitudes have changed in half a century.

Thursday evening, HB Reads will kick off with a panel discussion at Barnes & Noble at Bella Terra. The two-month series of citywide events will end with a speech by Roberts at Huntington Beach High School on March 20. (The author will not be present at Thursday's discussion.) Every year, HB Reads spotlights a book about diversity and human rights, and previous entries have focused on Mexican migrants, autism, African refugees and more.

Roberts, who lives in Pasadena and runs a management consultant firm, has an ample resume as a guest speaker: On Monday, the author visited two colleges in Pennsylvania to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In between campus appearances, Roberts spoke to the Independent about life as a civil-rights advocate and the steps America still needs to take toward equality. The following are excerpts from the conversation:


Today is MLK Day. What do you think about on this day every year?

Well, it varies depending on what's going on in my life. Today, I was simply thinking about what kinds of conversations I might have with the students and preparing myself for that. But nothing more than that.

Do you speak to students very often now?

All the time, yes. That's a big part of what I've been doing in January and February because Martin Luther King Day comes up in January, and then there's Black History Month in February. Those are two months where I spend a lot of time talking with students.

Did you know Dr. King personally?

I did, yes. We got to meet him in Little Rock. It was very early in his ministry. He was quite young at the time and beginning to develop his perspective on nonviolence. That's one of the things we talked about as a group of nine, about whether or not adopting a policy of nonviolence made sense for us. And eventually, we did. We went into the high school as nonviolent people.

In retrospect, do you think that was the right choice?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Sure. Because I believed in those principles, because to me, even without a full explanation, it made sense. Because violence doesn't accomplish anything, and it tends to bring more pain than any kind of resolution.

There's a line in your book, "We must face our past with unflinching honesty if we are to determine the most appropriate next steps for our future." As we're speaking right now, the schools are out, of course, for MLK Day. Do you think many kids are giving thought to what this day really means?

Well, I don't know, but I would certainly hope so. That's what it's for.

So this year, you'll speak to Huntington Beach students as part of the HB Reads program. When you talk to young people — like the ones you'll speak to at Huntington Beach High — about the civil rights movement, do you feel like it seems real to a lot of them, or do a lot of them think of the '50s or the '60s as kind of an odd, bygone time by now?

Well, I imagine they would be lined up along a wide continuum, with more or less knowledge about that period. Some [are well-versed] as a result of being in classrooms where teachers are more aware, help prepare them by directing their studies and so forth, but on the other extreme, you'll have some kids who probably won't know very much at all — probably the function of lack of interest and focus on other things.

When you talk with young people today, do they ever talk to you about race — about how they view race relations nowadays?

Oh, yeah, all the time.