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Adrian Walker

Beyond Little Rock

Ernest G. Green has lived his entire adult life in a role few of us can imagine: as a living piece of history.

Green achieved this status as a 17-year-old in 1957, by virtue of walking into Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. He is one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of black students who integrated the school in defiance of a lot of Southern sentiment.

Green and seven of his classmates are to be honored tomorrow evening at Faneuil Hall. The event, sponsored by Harvard Law School, was the brainchild of professor Charles Ogletree, but more on that later.

Little Rock is famous, of course. Three years after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Green and his classmates took part in the first attempt at actually integrating a school in the segregated South.

They were volunteers.

"I wanted to do it because I saw segregated life in Little Rock as restrictive," Green said in a phone interview yesterday. "It was something that didn't allow me to expand my talent. Central had more options than the school I was attending, and I saw Central as a place that would improve my chances for college."

They expected to be welcomed, which they weren't. The images of the crowds that stared them down have become iconic.

"We expected to be accepted and greeted, if not with open arms, then with an open mind, and in many ways that was not the case," he said. "But we decided we were going to stay there, finish the work, and graduate from Central High."

Ogletree, the law professor and activist, invited the group to Harvard because he believes their experience has something to say to Boston. He entered Harvard Law School in 1975, at the height of court-ordered desegregation here, and the shock of that time has never fully left him.

"I never imagined that in the state of John F. Kennedy and where the abolitionist movement was so influential that I would see such conflicts between black and white families," he said.

"I was surprised by the amount of white flight in the North, which most people thought was a Southern phenomenon."

Governor Deval L. Patrick will be the keynote speaker at the 5 p.m. event, which is open to the public. He is expected to discuss how much work remains to be done in the area of civil rights, particularly in education, public safety, and environmental justice.

Sources said his address is likely to include his thoughts on improving access to state government for people of color. He has recently heard an earful from activists and supporters about steps he might take to reinforce the idea that civil rights is a priority in state government, and he apparently plans to use the occasion to address that issue directly.

The anniversary of Little Rock comes as many school districts are more segregated than they were 20 years ago and as the US Supreme Court is viewed by many as less than protective of the Brown decision's legacy, Ogletree said.

"One of the challenges that we still have failed to come to grips with is the need for black and white people to see each other beyond a race lens and to appreciate the fact that collectively a diverse population of students contributes a lot to a community of knowledge, awareness, and productivity," he said.

Green, 66, went to college in Michigan after he graduated from high school, and is now an investment banker with Lehman Brothers.

As fate would have it, he hasn't lived in Arkansas since high school, though he said he visits often.

He chuckled when asked if a day ever passes without thinking about the momentous fall of 1957. The answer was no.

"It's an important part of my life and an important part of life for the other eight," Green said.

"We tried to open up opportunities for other young people, not just African-Americans, and I believe we opened up opportunities for other young people, regardless of race."

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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