Dianne Frances D. Powell
TERRE HAUTE —
Ernest Green, who said he “didn’t anticipate being in the history books,” is now in history as the only senior of the Little Rock Nine, the nine black students who, in 1957, desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. On May 27, 1958, Green became the first African-American to graduate from Central High. His graduation was attended by Martin Luther King, Jr.
He played a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation in schools in his southern hometown. He spoke at Indiana State University Friday as part of celebrations surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, observed nationwide on Monday.
Inside the Nelson Mandela Auditorium of the Charles E. Brown African American Cultural Center at ISU, Green spoke to students, faculty and staff about his personal history and the importance of the events at Little Rock to the Civil Rights Movement. In the end, he challenged his audience — made up of about 80 people — to “excel and have their own Little Rock moment.”
Green was also the keynote speaker of the Martin Luther King, Jr. annual commemorative dinner at ISU.
Born in Little Rock in 1941, Green attended segregated Dunbar Junior High School and after graduating, was assigned to Horace Mann High School, a high school for black Americans.
In 1957, the teenage Green volunteered to attend the all-white Little Rock Central High School for his senior year and help integrate it. This was after a Supreme Court ruling — made in May 1954 when Green was 13-years-old — which called for the desegregation of schools in the nation and declared laws establishing segregated schools unconstitutional.
“Little Rock was one of the early stops on the Civil Rights Movement to adhere to Brown v. Board of Education,” Green told the crowd.
May 2014 will be the historic decision’s 60th anniversary, he said.
“We decided to attend it [Little Rock Central High School] because it was the best school available to us at Little Rock,” Green said of the decision.
But as a teenager growing up in the segregated South, Green watched as major events around him unfolded: Jackie Robinson coming to baseball, reaction to Emmett Till’s death and the Montgomery bus boycott. Integrating the school was also an opportunity to make a difference.
“All these activities were occurring around me and I felt if there was an opportunity to change ... the inconveniences of Jim Crow life ... separate water fountains, bus segregation,” he wanted to be a part of it, he said.
But life at Little Rock Central High School was not always easy for Green and the other eight African-American students.
The group was initially prevented from entering the school by then-Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus by ordering the National Guard to physically block them. Then, President Eisenhower intervened and sent U.S. Army soldiers, who escorted the Little Rock Nine inside the school.
One graduate student attendee, Tasia Robinson, asked Green during the Q & A portion what obstacles he had to overcome. Robinson told the Tribune-Star that she asked the question because as the first person in her family to attend and graduate from college, she can relate to many of Green’s experiences of overcoming obstacles.
“I had the simple focus that I had to do enough work to make sure I graduate,” Green answered, adding that he received a scholarship at Michigan State University, anonymously donated, so he did his best to finish high school “so I can take advantage of the scholarship.”
He later found out that the scholarship was from John Hannah, president of Michigan State, whose office Green and other NAACP members, ironically, regularly picketed, Green said.
In addition to enduring constant threats and harassment at school, Green also had to study hard to make sure he graduated in order to demonstrate that African Americans were equally capable of attending Central High as anyone else.
But Green did not give up and he credits his family and friends for helping him get through it.
The Little Rock Nine, he said, realized “that this was something bigger ... there were bigger issues that we’re a part of.”
Quitting, he said, was what the “resistance wanted me to do”
“If I really wanted to make them mad, I’d stay there and work it out,” he told the audience.
Other questions from the audience followed.
“How did the teachers treat you on your first day?” asked another attendee, Adelaide Jones, a junior at ISU. Jones, who was “so honored to be here,” said she asked the question because it was related to her major, education.
“Most of the teachers tried to ignore it ... [they] were passive, one or two were very supportive,” Green answered.
But he remembers a Physics teacher who was “a tough teacher and a racist on top of that.”
“I barely got out of it [Physics class] but I did,” he added.
Civil Rights Movement was about expanding opportunities, Green said, and fast forward to 2014, “what we had done in Little Rock” contributed to getting an African-American elected president.
“All of this is about people believing that today can be better than yesterday,” Green said.
But the Civil Rights Movement is not only about the history of African Americans, he said.
“Hopefully, history judges it as an important part of American history,” Green said.
‘Your Little Rock Moment’
After sharing his personal history, Green gave a charge to the young people.
“You’re the future,” he told the students.
“Today, this moment, use this moment to build relationships,” he urged the students. Relationships will be beneficial down the road, he said.
While “we’ve made tremendous strides,” not all discrimination has been eliminated, Green said, “but really, the next push is gonna come from people like yourself.”
So Green urged the students to “take off your headphones, put the iPad away ... use this place [university] as a spring board to improve not only your options but also of the people around you.”
“You each will have your Little Rock moment,” Green said.
“The real question is: Will you recognize it?”
“Will you be prepared to take it on?”
Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or firstname.lastname@example.org.