Ernest Green shows hope through Little Rock Nine experience
Little Rock Nine speaker Ernest Green encouraged students Tuesday to live fearlessly, even in the state of controversy.
Green is one of the original nine black students who shattered social norms in 1957 by enrolling and attending the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School.
“I hoped, somewhere in my 16-year-old psyche, that we would do something incredible that would extend beyond ourselves,” Green said.
Now, 60 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision prohibiting segregation in education, Green uses his legacy to spread a message of life without fear to students, dreamers and equal rights activists all around the world.
Jasmine Murray, sophomore radio-television major of Little Rock, said the truth in Green’s presentation was especially powerful to her.
“I think a lot of times we allow our fear to hold ourselves back,” Murray said. “One thing I’ve learned is that to get different results, you have to try different things and be uncomfortable.”
Niya Blair, director of the Multicultural Center, said the most important concept students could learn from Green’s story is to be fearless in each and every situation.
“I stepped out on faith going to Central, not fear, hoping that someone else would be inspired,” Green said in his presentation.
He recalled the drive up to the high school as entering a pit of snakes. Rather than being greeted by classmates, teachers and homework, the nine students were met by a mob, Arkansas National Guard soldiers and assault weapons.
“It took all that I had to stifle the fear,” Green said. It took a company of troops from the 101st Air Division, sent by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to resolve the standoff peacefully.
Green still wonders at the backwardness of the situation.
“These were the same paratroopers who fought in Europe in World War II, and they helped a bunch of teenagers get into high school,” Green said.
Yet the conflict for civil equality did not stop even then.
“Every day we got up, laced our shoes and went to war,” Green said.
Being the only senior of the nine students, Green suffered especially from the torment of Little Rock Central High School bullies. He was slammed into cars, threatened and persecuted even through graduation.
In the months leading up to the May 1958 graduation ceremony, high school staff informed Green he did not have to walk the stage during the ceremony. In light of assassination threats Green could have his diploma mailed to him if he felt safer that way.
Green refused to concede to the threats and accepted his diploma amid sniper patrols, bomb dogs and security helicopters overshadowing the ceremony. When he walked across the stage, all he remembers is the sound of deafening silence.
In that time of fear, he recalled words of wisdom from his mother, “God wouldn’t lead you this far to leave you.”
He now combines that philosophy with a new adage: “Let your haters be your motivators.”
Green’s life didn’t stop after becoming the first black student to graduate from a previously entirely Caucasian high school.
Green went on to become a managing director of public finance with the Lehman Brothers in Washington, D.C. and currently enjoys a comfortable career in institutional asset management with Matrix Advisory.
“You cannot let fear, your own or someone else’s, stop you,” Green said. “Your goal should be to leave a mark on the world and live fearlessly.”
Green’s claim to fame as one of the nine historic students has given him unique opportunities of his own, including personally meeting South African freedom activist Nelson Mandela and having civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., attend his high school graduation.
Now, nearly 57 years after his first walk up the steps to the Little Rock Central High school, Green can reflect back on a half a century of change and progress in civil rights.
“I don’t think anyone in my age thought we would see this country as it is today,” Green said. “One of the most gratifying things is that some of the ideas we held as teenagers have come to fruition.”
The attitudes of nearly everyone around the nation have changed, including those of Green’s formerly antagonistic classmates.
“I went back to my 50th high school reunion and I couldn’t find anyone who was opposed to seeing me there,” Green said. “They were all my best friend.”
Green hopes that his legacy will become more than a historical footnote and continue to influence the lives of generations to come.
“Think about the image (you are creating) that will survive 200 years from now,” Green said. “I believe we’re all futurists. Let’s go forward.”
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