Civil rights icon Green: Traits activists share

Ernest Green is a civil rights icon with a place in U.S. history books as one of the Little Rock Nine, the group of students who helped integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. The students’ enrollment served as a test of 1954's Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

As the keynote speaker at the National Black Council of School Board Members luncheon on Sunday at NSBA’s annual conference in San Antonio, Green said the room full of education advocates was “my kind of crowd.” He told school leaders, “We are grateful for the support from you that allow us to continue our work.”

Green was the first African-American to graduate from the school in 1958. He and other members of the Little Rock Nine were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton in 1999.

Currently a partner in an asset management firm, Green served for four years as Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Carter. He was later appointed chairman of the African Development Foundation by President Clinton. He was also appointed by Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to serve as chairman of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Capital Financing Advisory Board.

During his address, Green took the opportunity to give “a shout-out” to at least a dozen “agents of change” who “paved the way for us to be where we are today,” from A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Daisy Bates and Linda Brown. He also recognized contemporary change agents, such as Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education.

Green outlined five characteristics that such activists share:

  • When faced with an obstacle, they reply: “Why Not?”
  • Realization that “change is constant; how you respond to it is paramount.
  • Recognition that they are not alone in their mission
  • An unwillingness to be deterred by obstacles, no matter how big
  • Acceptance that when greater things are meant for you, there’s no weapon that can truly stop your mission.

Of Brown, the namesake of the Supreme Court case, who passed away in March, Green said both she and her father, the late Rev. Oliver Leon Brown, “deserve kudos from all of us. The fact that they took on that challenge is a singular effort that we should applaud whenever we hear their names.”


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