Civil rights icon Ernest Green acknowledged the obvious: most of the 125 people who gathered at Georgian Court University to hear him talk weren’t even born when he and his classmates—the Little Rock Nine—integrated Central High School in September 1957.
Still, he said, they should be able to relate.
“This past weekend we saw the impact of young people on the optical horizon,” Mr. Green said during his hour-long talk at GCU, just days after a crowd of more than 500,000 supported the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC.
Movements have always been infused with student activity, he said to the GCU audience, which included students, faculty, and community residents. “Vietnam pushback was really college students at the forefront. The civil rights movement was led by students like John Lewis and others.”
Civil Rights Icon an Example of Living History
Mr. Green was one of nine black students, later known as the “Little Rock Nine,” to integrate Central High School following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the civil rights case that declared segregation illegal. His parents instilled in him confidence and self-respect, which helped him to become a leader among his peers and a civil rights advocate. He later received a B.S. in Social Science and an M.A. in Sociology from Michigan State University. He also received honorary doctorates from Michigan State University, Tougaloo College, and Central State University.
It was a tough year, he said, marked by defiant detractors, a military presence and relentless racially motivated taunting and bullying. He didn’t intend to become a civil rights icon, but rather he wanted to uphold the law as passed by the Supreme Court. “We were surrounded by a mob of people interested in keeping us out. We were met By by soldiers with bayonets and rifles at the ready.”
Fast forward several decades, following a successful career in public service, a Disney documentary about his life, and an appearance on one of the most-watched episodes of the Oprah Winfrey show, Mr. Green will celebrate his 60th high school reunion this year. He will connect with classmates more likely to hug him than express hate.
“Forge Your Own Path”
The point is not to hold onto hate, but to always find a path forward, he said.
“Malala Yousafzai In Pakistan likely never imagined fighting for equal education for girls would involve her fighting for her life,” he said of the world’s youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who is around the same age as some GCU students. “When there are greater things meant for you, there’s no weapon against you that will prosper.
“She’s the embodiment of the fact that you cannot allow fear to block your path to greatness,” he said.
“I don’t you expect to do the things Malala has done or the things I’ve done,” Mr. Green said. “I want you to forge your own path. The goal isn’t only to leave your mark in the world but to live fearlessly.”
Mr. Green talked with dozens of guests after sharing his story as one of the Little Rock Nine. The Arkansas native was the only student in the group to actually graduate from Central High School. The year after he and other classmates integrated the school, it was shut down in defiance of desegregation. He was a senior when he entered the once-segregated high school. (Photos by Jim Connolly)