The Legacy Of Little Rock
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Ernest G. Green Jr. sees much of the world now from a top floor corner office on K Street, just blocks from the White House and a very long way from where he started.
His BlackBerry holds the phone numbers of powerful men: former president Bill Clinton; Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television and co-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats; former ambassador Andrew Young; and three candidates for president of the United States.
He spends his days negotiating multimillion-dollar deals as managing director of public finance for Wall Street stalwart Lehman Brothers with clients including the City of New York and the State of Connecticut. He has a big house in Northwest Washington, "a beautiful wife, three wonderful kids" and a lot of gratitude for the circumstances that catapulted him from segregated Little Rock into U.S. history as one of nine students to integrate Central High School 50 years ago today.
"It has been a tremendous boost for me," said Green, who turned 66 on Saturday. "It provided me with opportunities I never would have otherwise had. I had a tremendous window into the last half of 20th century."
Green returned to his home town this weekend for events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High. Five decades ago, Green and eight other students were escorted into the school by the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division under orders from President Dwight Eisenhower after Gov. Orval Faubus used the state's National Guard to block the integration effort.
In the year that followed, Green and the others, who came to be known as the Little Rock Nine, were tripped on the stairs, attacked in the halls and pushed out of lunchroom lines. Teachers and administrators largely ignored them. The few white students who befriended them were subjected to ill treatment as well.
"Clearly, none of us anticipated that it would be as difficult as it was," said Green, the first of the nine to graduate. "But once we got there, all nine of us knew how important it was to stay. Backing down was not an option."
His story is a testament to the potential of forced integration, a remedy widely debated now as many urban school districts become resegregated. Green said people miss out when they don't mingle with those who are different from themselves. "We need to make sure children understand that they are more similar than different."
Green never set out to become an icon of the civil rights movement, with a movie made of his life and a congressional medal to his name. What he did, he said, was simply step out of his comfort zone.
"Too many blacks today," he said, "opt for comfort over taking a chance that might change their lives. We have to work hard to break through our comforts."
Many wouldn't consider a childhood in the segregated South a comfortable place, but Green has fond memories of growing up at the corner of 21st and Pulaski. His father, Ernest Sr., who died when Green was 13, was a janitor at the post office; his mother, Lothaire, taught in Little Rock schools for 43 years.
He, his sister, Treopia, and his brother, Scott, learned about taking a stand from their mother. In the 1940s, she supported the efforts of black teacher Susie Morris, who, with NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Thurgood Marshall, sued the Little Rock schools, demanding equal pay. His mother opened their home to Marshall when he was in town working on the case.