Imagine that your senior year of high school changed the world.
That's what happened to Ernest Green, who began his final year of classes at Central High School the day after he turned 16.
Green was active in community organizations like the Boy Scouts (he eventually became an Eagle Scout) and in his church. Like the rest of the Little Rock Nine and their families, Green and his parents believed a good education was the key to a brighter future. But African Americans first had to claim their right to that education.
"There had to be people willing to challenge," Green said. "I thought if I could open the door, then other people would be able to walk through. I was in the middle of something I didn't expect, but I knew it wasn't a time to back down" (source).
He certainly never expected to be escorted to school by armed U.S. soldiers, especially soldiers commanded by a white Southerner.
The person in charge of the detail was a colonel from South Carolina, very thick southern accent. That just seemed sort of incongruous that a white southerner was going to […] oversee our protection, and I was a little dubious about it. He went to great pains to assure [our] parents that he was there to provide protection.
We had a jeep in front of us with three or four troopers and a machine gun mount on it, we had another jeep behind us with a machine gun mount, and soldiers with rifles. […] We sped up to the front of the school with helicopters flying around. And this whole school is ringed with soldiers with bayonets drawn. […] They encircle us with […] fifteen or sixteen soldiers, and walked us up to the front of the school. I thought that this colonel from South Carolina couldn't be all bad. […] He knew what he was doing and he stuck with it. (Source)
Green stuck with it too, withstanding the abuse, the taunts, and the threats that became routine at Central. "We used to get a lot of phone calls," he remembered. "One night a voice said that one of the girls would be shot in the face with acid out of a water pistol" (source).
But not every encounter was a negative one, and some white students tried to be friendly. "But most of them were fearful of how their peers saw them," Green said. "Those who empathized and showed outward sympathy towards black students were overtly ostracized" (source).
In 1958, Green became the first African American to graduate from Central High School. Martin Luther King Jr. attended the ceremony with Green's parents. It was a small, yet important victory, and that school year influenced more people than Green could have imagined at the time.
Many years later, he said, white Southerners would "talk about what watching that on TV meant to them. And it's obvious it had a real impact in turning their attitudes. […] In retrospect, it's obvious that the film footage and the TV coverage of Little Rock gave it a far wider impact than any of us […] were aware of" (source).
One of the Southerners who was deeply affected by watching events in Little Rock on TV was Bill Clinton. Clinton grew up in Arkansas in the midst of the crisis. As president, he awarded Green the Congressional Gold Medal.
Green continues to work for opportunities for all as a member of the Quality Education for Minorities Network. He's brought his campaign into the 21st century, urging young people to fight racism with social media.