Justin A. Rice for Boston.comErnest G. Green, one of nine black students known as the "Little Rock Nine," gave the keynote address at Salem State University's annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation this morning at Veterans Hall at the Ellison Campus Center.
"The Little Rock Nine" were the first to integrate Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregation illegal.
“Was I scared, we all were,” said Green, who is presently managing director of public finance for Lehman Brothers in Washington, D.C. “But how could we say no when we knew people all over the South who were fighting for justice, how could we say no when we remembered what had been done to Emmett Till and what people in Mississippi and Arkansas were doing to fight back. So I said ‘Yes.’ I sometimes get embarrassed when people congratulate me for what I did. Ballplayers like to point out there is no ‘I’ in the word team. It's the same here.
“Our neighbors, the leaders of our community, our parents all had a vision of what this would mean. They knew if we climbed those steps black people would be a step closer to freedom.”
Annually, Salem State University holds a convocation as part of its celebration of the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The convocation is marked by a keynote address and readings of the three winning essays by the elementary school, middle school and high school students who wrote them.
Jordan Cooper of the Horace Mann Laboratory School in Salem and Guthrie Scrimgeour of the Collins Middle School in Salem both read from their winning essays. Rene Osaigbovo was also scheduled to speak but was not in attendance.
Lee Brossoit, assistant dean of graduate admissions was also presented the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award before Salem State student Wintana Wolday spoke.
“The greatest injustice we face today is that in which we inflict on ourselves,” Wolday said, “the lack of brotherhood, the lack of love and care for those who cannot care for themselves and the need to be on top when many of us came from battles that we should be thankful to be alive and well is quite astonishing.
“Disregarding the pain and bloodshed that got us to where we are now, we have turned on each other as a nation and more importantly as a global community.”
Born in Little Rock in 1941, Green was asked to be part of the group that desegregated the Little Rock schools by the head of the NAACP, Daisy Bates. While he’ll never forget the first day they were escorted into school with the protection of 1,000 Army troops, Green said the real trials began after the troops left Little Rock.
“There wasn’t a morning we didn’t wake up scared stiff, we had bomb threats, phone calls, letters claiming we would be lynched,” he said. “After gym class students would steam up the locker room could nobody could see and whip towel or break bottles on the floor.
“I’ll never forget a time at lunch when a boy was calling out insult after insult to my colleague Minnijean Brown. I was going to suggest she tell them to stop. Minnijean had a better idea. She dumped a bowl of chili on his head. With the perspective of over a half a century I have to admit I admire that.”
Green said he believed that most white people in Little Rock didn’t want to see them get hurt but they wanted them to fail academically.
“So if there was any anything heroic about that time it wasn’t just what you saw on television it’s what happened each night when we opened our books, “ he said. “It was when the cameras were off and we did what we had to do. Do a math problem as well as anyone else, write a paper, learn history as well as anyone else.”
Green went on to earn his high school diploma from Central High School. He went on to receive his bachelor’s degree in social science and a master’s degree in sociology from Michigan State University.
Green was the youngest recipient (at age 17) of the NAACP’s Spingard Medal. On November 9, 1999, President Clinton presented Green, along with the rest of the “Little Rock Nine,” the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor given to a civilian, for outstanding bravery during the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
Green and the rest of the “Little Rock Nine” had honorary seats at President Obama’s Inauguration in 2008.
“Amazed as I was to have a seat of honor along with my classmates from Little Rock,” he said, “I thought a lot about my parents that day. They would’ve been on the Mall the day this country inaugurated its first African American president. They would’ve celebrated but they wouldn’t have ignored that there is much left to do.
“Because even as he was giving that oath schools are in some ways more segregated now than they were at the time of Dr. King’s death. And even as he began to speak, students at African American high schools had scored 200 points behind other students on their SATs."
But Green said those facts don't mean the Civil Rights Movement failed.
"I don’t believe so," he said. "Absolutely not. Like the work of the Declaration of Independence ,the American Revolution and Constitution and the events that we experienced was a step on the ladder.
"What we see today only makes moving to the next step more urgent.”
Justin A. Rice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.