One of my favorite things about being a journalist is having an opportunity to meet people who changed our society for the better and 44 years ago I interviewed a man who had done just that.
|Ernest Green was one of nine black students
who integrated Central High School in Little
Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and became a civil
rights activist in America. He went on to serve
as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor during
the 1970s. COURTESY PHOTO
But Green was much more than a government official, he was someone who had fundamentally helped to change America to live up to the promise of equality and freedom for all, no matter what race you may be. As a teenager, Green was a member of the “Little Rock Nine,” a group of black students who desegregated one of the nation’s largest high schools in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.
Prior to his brush with history, Green had been an exceptional student at an all-black high school and a member of the Boy Scouts who had attained scouting’s highest rank as an Eagle Scout. His favorite subject in school was mathematics and he was aiming for an eventual career in finance or accounting after going to college.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in the landmark civil rights case “Brown vs. Board of Education” that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools across America was a violation of the 14th Amendment and was unconstitutional. It ended the long standing “separate but equal” precedent established by a Supreme Court decision years before and became a catalyst for a rapidly growing civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
Finishing his junior year at the all-black Horace Mann High School in May 1957, Green volunteered for an effort by black students to register and attend the all-white Little Rock Central High School that fall. When the attempt to integrate the school became known, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to restrict black students from gaining entry to the school and a tense confrontation with the federal government ensued. Massive public protests followed with white segregationists threatening violence if the students enrolled at the school.
Public school students returned to classes in Little Rock after the summer break on Sept. 4, 1957, and Arkansas National Guard soldiers carrying rifles and bayonets blocked doorways and turned away the nine black students, including Green as they tried to register for school. The crisis grew deeper as Eisenhower sent Faubus a telegram in which he wrote the governor that he would uphold the U.S. constitution through every legal means he could.
Over the next few weeks, a team of attorneys led by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall obtained a federal district court injunction to have Faubus remove Arkansas National Guard troops from the school, but again he refused to do so.
On Sept. 24, 1957, President Eisenhower directed soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect the rights of the black students to enroll at the school. He also federalized the Arkansas National Guard troops and ordered them to not interfere with the students attending the school. In a speech broadcast across America on television, the president said he was serious about upholding the law.
“Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts,” Eisenhower said during that speech.
The next morning, on Sept. 25, 1957, Green and the other eight students prepared to go to enroll for classes under federal troop escort.
“We went to school in an Army station wagon and were part of a convoy with an Army Jeep in front of us and one behind with mounted machine guns,” Green said. “There were soldiers with rifles. And when we got to the front of the school, the whole school was ringed by paratroopers with helicopters hovering around and we slowly walked up the steps with this circle of soldiers with bayonets drawn. Walking up the steps that day to the school was probably one of the biggest feelings I've ever had in my lifetime.”
Federal troops and the National Guard remained at the school through the end of the school year to protect the students and on May 27, 1958, Green became the first black student to graduate from Little Rock Central High School. Civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended the graduation ceremony as the guest of Ernest Green’s family and shook his hand marking his achievement.
Green went on to attend Michigan State University on a scholarship and earned degrees in public finance.
“I figured that I was making a statement and helping black people's existence in Little Rock. Now, beyond that, we'd never had much of a focus on what the nation or what the world impact of Little Rock was,” he said.
His courage and bravery as a teenager helped change our nation and paved the way for America to fulfill its promise of liberty and justice for all.