It was the moment the cheese-and-pate-stuffed audience at Ernest Green's last night had been waiting for. When their friend, one of the nine black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957, arrived on the television screen, they cheered.
He looked like a hero, his dark suit pressed, his confident air defined by his briefcase. Then they stopped applauding. "White socks?" the group of 20 cried out. "White socks?" Green didn't have a chance. "Those are the same ones he wore to the AKA dances," yelled out Fred Richardson, a local teacher.
The viewing party, which was watching, "Crisis at Central High," the CBS adaptation of the journal of one of the school's teachers, "was alternately irreverent and philosophical For many in the room, reviewing television shows that had a special importance for blacks was a tradition that started a few years ago with the first "Roots." Always the discussions were free-form.
By the time the actors had used the expression "nigra" three times, Zelma Chaney, a cousin of Green's and an employe at the Treasury Department, had taken out her gloves and was fanning herself. "I'm just glad I left Little Rock before I was 5 years old, because there would have been a tree with my initials carved on it," said Chaney angrily. Among the other viewers at Green's newly restored town house in the LeDroit Park section of Northwest Washington were his sister Treobia Washington, his nephew Todd Washington, Alexis Herman, who headed the Women's Bureau of the Labor Department under President Carter, other Democratic appointees Bernard Lee and Doris Crenshaw, and Peggy Cooper, chairman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts. Green, who was an assistant secretary of Labor under Carter, is now starting life over as a management consultant.
As the students in the film walked past crowds of whites shouting, "Two, four, six, eight; we don't want to integrate," Alexis Herman recalled her own experiences growing up in Mobile, Ala. "When we saw those scenes on television, we used to yell at the screen, 'Ten, eight, six, four, two; Ten to one we bet you do.'"
Before the movie started Calvin Levels, the actor who portrays the 17-year-old Green in the movie, called from California. "I had decided that this guy should have a slight southern accent and then I met him and he didn't have an accent at all, so I had to change that. And I realized from listening to him that he probably had been pretty articulate, so I gave him more of brave manner," said Levels.
Green is one of the few Central High student who signed a release for the use of his real name.On one occasion during the filimg of the exteriors in Little Rock, Green spent some time with Levels. "He was able to get a sense for the pressures outside the student and teacher relationships," said green.
Last night's movie, which was based on the story of Elizabeth Huckaby, is not the only book about the Little Rock intergration. Both Daisy Bates, who was then the president of the state NAACP, and former governor Orval Faubus, hve written accounts. "The fact that her story, instead of Bates', was done has a lot to do with Huckaby's persistence," said Green. "She's been trying to get the story done for years."
As the movie went on, some scenes evoked bitter sociology. When a white girl offered to sit next to one of the black students, one of the guests tossed aside the white student's sincerity. "She was just mad with her father and her brother, she's just getting even for all those night visits her father and brother made."
Some were reminded on the recent violence over school integration in Boston. Jennifer Dobbins, an administrator at the University of the District of Columbia, shook her head . "Last night I saw cross burnings on the news. It made this all seem very current." n