Editor's Note: this interview originally aired in September 2015.
In September of 1957, Ernest Green and eight other African American students stood outside the all white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, their entrance blocked by a line of Arkansas National Guard Soldiers. The Little Rock Nine became symbols of the fight to integrate public schools in America. We talk to Ernest Green about what it was like to be a part of such a historic moment ahead of his lecture in East Lansing on Thursday.
On September 4, 1957, nine African American students showed up for their first day of school at the all white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
But when they got to the school, a line of Arkansas National Guard soldiers stood blocking their entrance.
The refusal of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to integrate Central High School led President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to intervene.
Ernest Green was one of the “Little Rock Nine” who eventually integrated Central High School.
He joined Current State to discuss this watershed event in our country’s history.
Although only nine black students entered Central High in the fall of 1957, the number of interested students was originally much higher.
“That spring [of 1957] there was maybe 7,500 students who said they were interested in transferring,” says Green.
Green’s aunt, who was a guidance counselor in the Little Rock school system, told him during the summer that he was one of the students being considered to transfer to the all white school that fall.
“As we got closer to the time period I think it became obvious this was something Governor Faubus was going to fight,” says Green. “Then the numbers started to dwindle.”
This was an obviously contentious moment in Little Rock’s history. Still, Green wasn’t prepared for the actions that Faubus would take to keep him out of Central High.
“My expectations were that there would be some concern and some reaction from a few people…I didn’t expect it to be that widespread,” says Green.
Until the first day of school, the students had no idea that the Governor would use National Guard troops to bar them from entering the high school.
Facing a group of armed soldiers didn’t deter the “Little Rock Nine”. The NAACP would bring their case to court, eventually winning after a three-week process.
The nine students, accompanied by personal armed guards from the 101st Airborne Division, entered Central High on September 25, 1957.
Finally able to start his senior year of high school, Green still faced many challenges before graduation.
“I can’t think of a classroom where students attempted to bring me physical harm. When we got into the hallway or cafeteria…things changed.”
For Green, graduation from high school in the spring of 1958 couldn’t come soon enough.
And a very special guest at the ceremony made for a lasting memory.
“I’m one of the few people in the world who had their high school graduation attended by Martin Luther King Jr,” says Green.
The civil rights leader even gifted Green a $15 check for his accomplishments.
“I get asked all the time if I cashed the check,” says Green.
“As a 16-year old with graduation presents…that was a check I wasn’t saving. I cashed it right away.”
Article by Ethan Merrill, Current State Web Intern