Member of ‘Little Rock Nine’ Speaks in Champaign

Students became symbol of the Civil Rights Movement

In September 1957, a group of African-American teens who came to be known as the ‘The Little Rock Nine’ would play a large role in the civil rights movement.

Ernest Green, one of the members of the group, shared his story with about 200 people in Champaign on Friday, as part of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Countywide Celebration.

Green and the other youths tried to attend Little Rock Central High School, but were turned away by the National Guard under orders from Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who defied a court order.

After that first day, the Little Rock Nine had to sit at home for three weeks, until President Dwight D. Eisenhower brought in the 101st Airborne Division to escort them into school, but students still endured physical and verbal harassment.

“Neither I or the other members of the Little Rock Nine were fully prepared for how quickly we had to adapt to our new circumstances and environment,” Green said, in his speech at Champaign's Hilton Garden Inn. “What was normal before was flipped on its head.  We knew that there would be opposition.  We knew people wouldn’t like what we were doing.  But we never fathomed what it truly meant.”

Green said he learned to adapt, becoming the first African-American to graduate from Central High in 1958, his senior year. 

“We learned to lace up our shoes every morning, and prepare for battle,” he said. “We learned that no matter how chaotic things got, we had to stay flexible to the changing climate.  And that adaptation was the key to getting through every day.”

Green said his biggest concern was not the racial harassment, but graduating that year.

“We could have been forceful, we could have insisted that an angry black mob fight our way into the building,” he said. “That would have been the rash and quick judgment that could have been everyone’s lives in jeopardy.  However, we had been trained in non-violent protests, the cornerstone of Dr. King’s resistance.”

But Green also used his 30-minute speech to focus on other names in the civil rights struggle, including Thurgood Marshall, the country’s first African-American Supreme Court justice. 

Marshall was first denied admission to law school because he was black, but later earned his first degree from Howard University, and those he defended included the Little Rock Nine.

“The law at that time was being used as weapon to oppress and disenfranchise individuals,” Green said. “Thurgood Marshall individually knew that you had to adapt to change.  Amendments were added, understanding of equality grew, and slowly, the law adapted to America’s understanding of civil rights for all.”

Green went on to earn degrees in Social Science and a Masters in Sociology from Michigan State, and honorary degrees from Michigan State, Tougaloo College, and Central State University. 

The 71-year old Green has received many honors, including the Congressional Gold Medal, presented by President Bill Clinton, in 1999.  He is the Managing Director of Public Finance for Lehman Brothers in Washington, D.C.

Story source: WILL