Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ernest Green: Little Rock Remembered

When we read about historic civil rights moments, we typically associate those events to earlier times, and particularly for students of today to past generations. Names like Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Rosa Parks are etched in our memory for the challenges they faced, gains they achieved, and sacrifices they made – some who paid the ultimate price by giving their lives.

Ernest Green received high school
diploma in May 1958 from principal
(Photo: Museum of American History)
When I learned that Ernest Green, the sole senior among the nine students who had integrated Central High School in 1957, was coming to my college to give a lecture, I knew that I had to attend and see him in person. Attesting to the contribution by Green to civil rights in the United States, Dr. John Dempsey, president of Sandhills Community College, said that Green “may not belong in the same sentence as Rosa Parks but he belongs in the same paragraph.”

Green (student at right) is blocked with
two others from entering school by
National Guardsman on Sep. 4, 1957
(Photo: Arkansas History Commission)
The events that unfolded in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 are moments that my classes on the American South discuss each semester. They are significant for demonstrating that state law and officials can no longer overturn federal guarantees for civil rights. In the third year after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the school board of Little Rock had planned a quiet desegregation of the principal high school in the capital city of Arkansas. However, the plans were thrown into turmoil when Governor Faubus ringed the school campus with National Guard soldiers with orders to block nine African-American students.

As we all have learned, President Eisenhower deployed more than a thousand U.S. Army paratroopers to Little Rock to counter the governor’s show of force and to provide protection for the nine students. The lone senior in the group was Ernest Green, a name many Americans no longer recall, although the events are easily identified as a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.

Greens gives a Ruth Pauley Lecture
at SCC in February 2013
The lecture that Green gave was uplifting, and everyone in the audience seemed moved by his words and deeds. In addition to the expected points of the speech, a few facts surprised me:
  • The school board had approved 26 or 27 African American students, including seniors, to transfer to Central High as part of the initial desegregation. Green said, “Others dropped out. When I turned around and looked, I was standing by myself.” 
  • His mother had voted for Gov. Faubus. He had desegregated buses and state transportation, and she thought that he represented “ideas of change.” 
  • After high school Green attended Michigan State where he received a scholarship from an anonymous donor. As a college student, Green said he actively engaged in civil rights protests and demonstrations, including several in front of the home of the university president. Green learned much later that the anonymous donor had been the president himself only after he had died.
Green speaks to state labor
convention in 1967 (10 years
after high school integration)
(Photo: Arkansas History
As Green discussed “Living a Fearless Life,” one point was to “not settle on any one moment of your life as being good enough.” Having survived his tumultuous senior year of high school, Green could have easily rested on that achievement. I was taken by the pressure that he placed on himself to attain high achievements throughout adulthood. The Congressional Gold Medal that he received in 1998 attests to his lifetime success, much broader than his role in school integration.

At the end of the lecture, Green entertained a few questions. The audience was stunned when one person rose to say that he had been one of the National Guardsmen on duty obeying the governor's orders to keep Green and the other eight off campus. He rose not to ask a question concerning the lecture but to say that he wanted to shake Green's hand and see if Green would be willing. The long-awaited handshake took place after the event. Imagine how that handshake lifted a burden from the former soldier that he had been carrying for more than 50 years.

With Ernest Green before lunch discussion
The experience was meaningful for me by not only attending the lecture but also joining a small group who enjoyed lunch with Green earlier that day. During that session, he informally talked about being escorted from class to class by soldiers at Central High and how that experience required that he do more with his life than just graduate from high school. “We all have a Little Rock High School moment,” Green said. “The question is, do we accept it and take advantage of it?” He certainly has more than fulfilled the expectations of those who entrusted in 1957 such a fateful task to him.

As Green ended the lunchtime discussion, he said, “The future is always better than the past.” A remarkable life journey like his sometimes might make a person want to forget the past. However, as he told the lecture audience, “Remember where you came from and who went before you.”

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