"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
In the past year, the Arkansas Times caught up with each of the Little Rock Nine for interviews — some on the fly as they were in town for special events, some on the phone and one during the taping of a video for the Times website. Each was asked to assess the kind of progress the nation has made toward an equal society, including any observations of current-day Little Rock they might want to make. To the latter, Elizabeth Eckford repeated the admonishment that appears on the plaque that accompanies her bronze statue on the grounds of the state Capitol: Little Rock must “honestly acknowledge its painful stand in the past to have reconciliation.” The Times' re-examination of the Crisis of Little Rock for this 50th anniversary issue will attempt to move the city toward that reconciliation.
Ernest Gideon Green
Managing director, Lehman Brothers, Washington, D.C.
Born: Sept. 22, 1941, in Little Rock.
Parents: Ernest and Lothaire Green.
Education: First black graduate of Central High School. B.A. social science, M.A. sociology, Michigan State University.
“Ernest Green, the oldest and a senior, was a member of my church. His warm eyes and quick smile greeted me each week at Sunday School. His aunt, Mrs. Gravely, had taught me history in junior high.”
— Melba Patillo Beals, “Warriors Don't Cry”
As the school year ended in 1958, Central High Principal Jess W. Matthews told graduating senior Ernest Green he'd mail him his diploma. But Green insisted on walking, one black in a sea of 600 white students. The only cheers that arose as he crossed the stage and took his diploma came from his family. Sitting with them was Martin Luther King Jr.
On that day, Green said, he knew he was breaking a barrier and that what he had done was important. He'd gone to Central to widen the educational opportunity for himself and other black teen-agers in Little Rock.
“But I don't think any of us thought it was something that was going to be recognized 50 years later,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
When Green was a teen-ager, civil right atrocities were being committed. He kept up with the tragedy of Emmett Till, a young black man who was beaten and drowned for speaking to a white woman in Mississippi and whose attackers went unpunished. Injustice was sharply defined and deeply felt. The challenge for black kids in 2007, Green said, is to find opportunities to make a difference — “that some kid can feel as inspired as I did that there are bottomless opportunities out there.”
Green's parents had a vision: “They had enough foresight to believe this [going to Central] was something important to participate in.”
Yet, what happened at Central was far worse than they anticipated. “Each of us up until the time the governor called out the National Guard thought there would be a minor blip on the screen and that the resistance would not be as vocal and as harsh.” But Orval Faubus wanted to “outseg Jim Johnson,” Green said. Had Faubus done the right thing in Little Rock, “school desegregation in the South would have gone a lot smoother.”
Today there's a feeling, Green said, that a focus on race is no longer needed — hence the backlash against the system of affirmative action, which was meant to give a leg up to those who've been crippled by a segregationist system. But, he said: “Race is the elephant in the corner. ... It permeates a large percentage of the things we do.” Racism is still throwing up barriers to economic success and access to better schools and housing.