A true living legacy: The story of Ernest Green and the Little Rock Nine
“Ernest Green said that he didn’t mean to start a revolution, he was just going to class,” commented Kamal Ibrahim, a senior mathematics major and vice president of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
Green is the oldest member of the Little Rock Nine, the legendary group of students that broke segregation at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.
The journey that brought Green to campus last Thursday began just as humbly with a conversation between Ibrahim and M. Shernell Smith, the coordinator of Student Development, Multicultural, and Diversity Initiatives on campus.
Ibrahim sought to emphasize that “you can’t move forward without knowing your past” during Black History Month, and the result of their conversation was the “Living Legacies” lecture series. This particular lecture held special memories for Smith, as her mentor was none other than Daisy Bates, a civil rights activist and mentor of the Little Rock Nine.
In the early ’50s, the American school system operated under the “separate but equal” language of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case. In 1954, the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education decision legally ended racial segregation in education.
However, it took three years for any progress to occur in Little Rock’s Central High School. Segregationists heavily protested the move to desegregation, and Governor Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to block the students’ entry.
These nine students made history through their impact on desegregation. Their names were Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Lanier, Minnijean Trickley, Gloria Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed-Wair, and Melba Beals.
In an interview before the lecture, Green discussed his life leading to that school year, implications for the future in education, and civil rights. Before the opportunity to attend Central High School arose, Green attended an all-black high school, Horace Mann.
“Little Rock at that time was segregated buses, movie theaters, [and] restaurants, and Jim Crow activity was prevalent,” Green said.
His mother and aunt were schoolteachers and they, along with his grandfather, played an important role in his childhood. In his educational endeavors, Green was an active student and a member of the marching band.
The opportunity arose after the Brown decision for students to transfer into Central High School. Green volunteered to participate. “When I first told my mother I was considering transferring to Central, she was supportive.... She saw that the old way was something we had to be willing to challenge and change for the future,” Green said.
That change tested the nine students and formed strong bonds between them. According to Green, “name-calling, harassment, abuse, breaking into lockers, wet towels and broken glass in the gym ... telephone calls in the middle of the night, death threats” all occurred in the first year. The few white students that did try to aid the nine students faced harassment from segregationists.
With the support of family, community, and his inner resolve, Green graduated at 16 years old as the first African-American from the school. In attendance at his graduation was Martin Luther King Jr., who at the time was not yet nationally known. Green experienced firsthand how providing educational opportunities and resources is fundamental for securing the future. His response to the ongoing struggle for educational equality was that “this country has to figure their expenditure on education and students is an investment for the future.”
Brittany Claud, the president of the Black Graduate Student Organization, initiated the event, followed by an introduction by Ibrahim.
Green began his lecture by stressing the importance of remembering the past while looking to the future. His first anecdote centered on himself as a child of six years old in Little Rock being denied access to a whites-only water fountain and connected it with the trials African-Americans faced daily.
Green provided the audience with vivid descriptions of the school year, those who ensured its success, and the importance of education.
“The heroes of the civil rights movement were the thousands demonstrating, voting, leading organizations, and helping students like us with homework,” he said. At the time his father died, only 2 percent of African-Americans typically graduated from college. Today, the number has increased to 20 percent, demonstrating both the progress and the ongoing struggle for educational parity the United States faces.
After the lecture, Green accepted questions from the audience that focused on education, the status of family, and his own life.
A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter asked if Green’s parents were activists. Although Green acknowledged that he did not see it as activism at the time, his mother was part of a support group that helped a woman suing the Arkansas School Board for equal pay for black and white teachers. In a time when African-Americans were not permitted in hotels, Green’s mother provided housing for the attorney, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
As he concluded the lecture, Green emphasized that the current generation is the one that “will turn the lights on and make the trains run.”
As part of the focus on inspiring the future generation, Green also attended a dinner honoring African-American student leaders on campus. Attendees, in addition to Ibrahim and Smith, were Billy Snow, Kory McDonald, Brianna Kent, Chris Loncke, Heather Bernard, Brittany Claud, Calvin Mack, Darlene Reid, Joanna Dickert, and Terri Baltimore of the Hill House Association.
It is these types of cultural experiences that Smith seeks to encourage throughout the year, not just during a specific month.
“It’s about every day having these meaningful exchanges that make others aware of culture ... and looking at things not just from a difference but in regards to all the similarities that we all share and how that helps us to be the society and world that we are,” Smith said.