By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Green grew up riding past the impressive edifice of Central High School, considered the best school in town. The name was stamped into the secondhand books that taught him U.S. history, algebra and chemistry. As a member of the marching band -- he played tenor saxophone -- at segregated Horace Mann High School, he had marched on Central's field.
"We didn't have a stadium, so the black schools played on the field one night and the white schools another," he recalled.
Green was 13 when the U.S. Supreme Court, acting on arguments by Marshall, outlawed school segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education case. Even so, many officials in Southern states vehemently refused to carry out the order.
No such sentiment was evident in Little Rock in 1957, which had a progressive reputation, Green said. Blacks owned businesses. There was a thriving black middle class. The public libraries and city buses were integrated, as was the University of Arkansas campus. Several Arkansas school districts had voluntarily integrated.
It was against this backdrop that the Little Rock school board decided to integrate.
"I heard about it on the radio that they were looking for students interested in going to Central," said Minnijean Brown Trickey, another of the Little Rock Nine. "It started off that there were 23 of us, but by the time we got to school that first day, there were only nine."
It was Green's idea to attend Central High, and his mother, like the other parents, supported the decision. "They had some idea of what it would do to change the opportunities for all the black folks in Little Rock if we were able to integrate the school," he said.
Green said they were all thunderstruck by the level of resistance.
"We didn't think there would be a confrontation," he said. "Orval Faubus was regarded as a progressive white Southerner. My mother had voted for him as governor. He didn't have an image of being a firebrand segregationist or racist."
On Sept. 4, the students were denied entry by guardsmen and racists yelling epithets. After the NAACP took the case to court, they were allowed in on Sept. 23 but had to leave early because of fears of violence. Two days later, with an escort from the 101st Airborne, they were admitted.
For four weeks, things were relatively quiet. Soldiers escorted the nine black students to class. Many avid segregationists kept their children at home.
"Once they saw we weren't leaving, they started to trickle back in," Green said. Soon, the harassment started.
As the only senior, Green was a prominent target.
"It seemed to me that one of the things that would drive them crazy was if I were to be successful," he recalled. "So I was determined to stick it out that whole year."
Each morning, the black students would gather at one of their homes or at the home of Daisy Bates, the legendary Arkansas NAACP president, and her husband, L.C. Bates, founder of the Arkansas State Press, the state's leading black newspaper.
The hostility didn't subside until the day before Green's graduation.
"There were a number of white kids who got up the nerve to come over and congratulate me for getting through the year," he said.
The principal urged Green to take his diploma and go home without attending the commencement ceremony.
"Local authorities were afraid there would be some attempt to do physical harm to me, but I was convinced that I had angels looking over me," Green said. "I figured I had gone through [too much] not to enjoy the benefits of the service."
As it turned out, Martin Luther King Jr., who had gained prominence with the Montgomery bus boycott two years earlier, was in Arkansas.
"He came up the evening of the ceremony to sit with my mother, aunt and family," Green said. "I didn't know he was in the audience until after the ceremony was over."
The next five decades of Green's life have, in many ways, been defined by that year at Central High.
He devoted himself to civil rights causes. At Michigan State University, which he attended on a full scholarship, he became president of the school's NAACP chapter and often protested the policies of the university's president, John Hannah. Thirty years later, he learned that Hannah had personally arranged for his scholarship.
After earning bachelor's and master's degrees, Green moved to New York and worked with civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin to recruit minorities into the building trades. In 1977, he was tapped by President Jimmy Carter as assistant secretary of labor for employment and training. He later formed a minority consulting company with Alexis Herman, who would be named Clinton's labor secretary.
In 1987, capitalizing on the relationships he made in public service, he took a position with Lehman Brothers as an investment banker; his projects included underwriting municipal debt with governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations. Again, he drew on his experience at Central High.
"It made me a tougher negotiator, able to control my emotions and able to handle the ups and down of business and life," he said.
The years have brought proud moments: In 1999, Clinton awarded Green and the rest of the Little Rock Nine the Congressional Gold Medal. There have also been humbling times: In 2002, Green was sentenced to 90 days of home detention and given a $10,000 fine for failing to declare and pay taxes on income he received as part of a planned business venture.
Today, he works passionately to help young people. He noted that last week, 50 years after he entered Central High, black activists were gathered in Jena, La., to protest the treatment of six black youths arrested after a racially tinged brawl.
"A lot of people don't realize," he said, "that there is still racial injustice in this country."