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Your ‘Little Rock’ Moment
Jan 19, 2015
When Ernest Green attends one of his high school class reunions, a funny thing happens. Everyone recalls he or she was Green’s pal, on his side.
Indeed, some classmates were. Plenty were not, though. Green’s graduating class was Little Rock (Arkansas) Central High School, 1958, and he was the class’s sole African American. He had enrolled the previous fall as one of the Little Rock Nine — nine African American teenagers who broke the school’s all white color code. With help from President Eisenhower and U.S. Army troops, Green and the rest got through the school year (the others were younger, not seniors). The Little Rock Nine made national headlines, although at the 1958 graduation ceremony the principal predicted the class would be remembered not by those headlines, but by its successful athletic teams. Wrong.
Wrong as were so many things at that high school that year. Green endured slurs, threats and physical harassment. “There wasn’t a morning we didn’t wake up scared stiff,” he recalls. Some teachers saw it their duty to support the Little Rock Nine and some were as cruel as any teenager could be.
I remember first learning about the Little Rock Nine 14 years after they made history, when I was a high school senior. Green’s era seemed like ancient history to me then, the time of Ike, Sputnik and Elvis when he was skinny. When I shook Green’s hand in Spearfish in 2011, it was strange how he felt like a contemporary — like me, a little gray but still kicking.
In 1995, Ruth Ziolkowski, of Crazy Horse Memorial, told me she never travelled because if you live in the Black Hills, everyone you’ll ever want to meet will eventually show up. So it was with Green, who was invited to speak at a Midwest Alliance for Professional Educational Learning and Leadership conference. Among those who listened to Green were a couple dozen Black Hills State University students. I know from experience that when you speak to university students, they’re unabashed about communicating that you’re missing the mark, mainly by yawns if not actually dropping asleep.
In Green’s case, the students were riveted. They recognized his genuine courage and his place in history. When they gathered around him for a group picture after the talk, it was a rock star moment. Green had words just for them: At some point, he predicted, all of them will face a Little Rock moment. They’ll be tested and will pass if they have the courage to be true to their values and best instincts, and do the right thing.
Green believes that most people living in Little Rock 57 years ago didn’t want to see the Little Rock Nine hurt. “They did want to see us fail, though,” he says. What Green and the others were fighting for wasn’t just an education, but an education of the highest quality. There could be no denying that Little Rock’s segregated schools for black students lacked resources and were sub-par when compared to Central High.
There can be no denying, either, that Green made the most of his Central High diploma, moving on to achieve solid academic success at Michigan State University, becoming a successful investment banker, and even serving a stint in Washington, D.C. as Assistant Secretary of Labor. He believes that in the 21st century, with the United States facing stiff international competition in business and industry, making quality education available to all American children is a matter of national defense.
About those old classmates who show up for reunions in Little Rock and remember Green as their good friend when, in fact, they were anything but friends. In a strange way even they mark the nation’s progress in civil rights over the past half-century. They didn’t do the right thing during the tumultuous 1957-58 school year, but looking back they wish they could say they did.
In fact, they do say so.
Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the January/February 2012 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.