By Errol Castens
STARKVILLE – Few people would have considered a 16-year-old black boy in Little Rock, Ark., in the fall of 1957 as a leader, but Ernest Green proved them wrong.
Green was one of the “Little Rock Nine,” a handful of black students who broke the color barrier at Little Rock’s Central High School.
Now 72 and able to look back on a distinguished career in government and business, Green spoke at Mississippi State University on Thursday as part of that campus’ observance of Black History Month, urging the several hundred to “become agents of change.”
“An agent of change is a singular individual with a dream of tomorrow, be it for themselves, for future generations or for the whole human race,” he said. “When faced with an obstacle or challenge, they ask, ‘Why not?’”
As an aspiring scholar, Green saw the city’s largest and most prestigious school was a worthy step in his education.
“Segregation was the law of the day, and ‘separate but equal’ was the wall behind which it hid,” he said. “When the opportunity presented itself to go to Central, I asked myself, ‘Why not?’”
Green and his fellows knew from the NAACP’s first call for students willing to integrate Central High that the process would not be easy. “The first one through the wall,” he said, employing a military metaphor, “is always the bloodiest.”
They were deluged with taunts and threats, and riots seemed likely. The first day they were turned away by local law enforcement officers, but they returned under military protection.
Green said the Little Rock Nine endured even the opposition of other blacks, noting that leaders do not always wait for consensus.
“The most effective leaders … are molders of consensus. If you’re able to seize those moments, you’ll be a leader for generations to come,” he said.
President Dwight Eisenhower ordered them protected by the 101st Airborne Division.
“The same paratroopers that helped liberate Europe helped the Little Rock Nine,” he said. “That’s one heck of a way to show that going around the problem is better than being bullheaded.”
He told the MSU audience that such fate-filled moments occur in every life.
“You’re all going to have some Little Rock Central High School moment, but you’ll call it something else,” Green said. “Hopefully you’ll recognize it and take advantage of it.”